Anomalous Health Incidents & Health Incident Response Task Force

Washington, DC (STL.NewsThe US Department of State released the following statement:

The issue of Anomalous Health Incidents (AHI) – including the interagency effort to protect and care for our personnel and uncover the cause of these incidents – is an absolute priority for the Department, including its most senior leaders.  It was a top concern for Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken , who requested and received a comprehensive briefing from the outgoing administration during the transition, even before he was sworn into office. Simply put, he and his team have no higher priority than to protect and care for our people.  As Secretary Blinken has said, “This is about the health and security of our people and there’s nothing we take more seriously.”

Under this Administration, the Health Incident Response Task Force (HIRTF), which coordinates every aspect of the Department’s response to AHI, was elevated to the direct supervision of Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources Brian McKeon. Today, Secretary Blinken introduced two key leaders of the HIRTF: Ambassador Jonathan Moore, who will serve as Coordinator of the Task Force, and Ambassador Margaret Uyehara, who leads the Care Coordination Team dedicated to directly supporting affected employees. Both are career members of the Senior Foreign Service who bring decades of experience to their new roles.

The Secretary has encouraged his leadership team to emphasize the importance of reporting incidents and maintaining an environment that facilitates openness regarding AHI.  To that end, Department leaders regularly send messages to employees to encourage this discussion, and Secretary Blinken, Deputy Secretary McKeon, and other senior Department officials have met with those affected. Further, through town halls and the provision of AHI-related resources to posts, we have communicated with all U.S. government personnel and family members under Chief of Mission security responsibility about our current protocols.  Understanding that not all affected employees wish to be identified, the Department has also established a dedicated e-mail inbox where all personnel and eligible family members (EFMs) can send concerns or questions about AHIs and receive answers.  These and other steps seek to ensure that our personnel are empowered with information and resources to help identify and even prevent a possible AHI.

Secretary Blinken has expressed his appreciation for the enactment of the HAVANA Act, as well as additional authorities that Congress has secured.  He has directed the Bureau of Global Talent Management to work promptly to implement the Act and help affected employees and their families gain access to the care and benefits to which they are entitled.  Last month, the Department began a partnership with Johns Hopkins University, so those affected can access the University’s outstanding medical professionals and facilities.  This expands the top-tier care available to employees and families who have been affected by AHI.

The Department, like other agencies whose employees have been affected, is actively involved in the government-wide response to AHI coordinated by the National Security Council.  The national security departments and agencies are devoting significant resources to identify the cause and attribution of these incidents.  We are leaving no stone unturned to get the answers.

The Department is working closely with interagency partners to standardize our reporting protocols and collect and share data about incidents and is engaging with the interagency community to ensure we address matters of compensation and benefits in lockstep with those offered by other agencies.

Further, the Department has reviewed and implemented recommendations outlined in the Department-commissioned National Academy of Sciences Report.  We will continue to work diligently to meet the objectives outlined by this report.

These are just a sample of the measures we have taken. Additional actions include:

Medical/Care

  • The Bureau of Medical Services (MED) has established support groups.
  • When appropriate, MED has performed localized screening at posts of concern and sent medical experts for additional support.
  • MED continues to work with the interagency to develop additional care options for those who may experience such incidents.
  • We established a team of medical experts who we can consult to assist us in responding to reports of possible AHIs globally.
  • We created an interagency clinical triage tool that standardizes the medical assessments of these incidents across the various affected agencies and shared this tool with our congressional committees of jurisdiction.
  • We launched a pilot program in June to collect from employees and eligible family members pre-incident baseline health information that may be informative in the event of a reported AHI.
  • We have partnered with several medical centers-of-excellence to enhance our ability to conduct baseline testing.
  • The baselining program is voluntary and currently has over 300 participants.  The baseline studies include vestibular, ocular, cognitive, neurological, and auditory domains.  MED recently expanded this program to include State Department Foreign Service Officers and specialists posted in the National Capital Region.
  • The Care Coordination Team, headed by Ambassador Margaret Uyehara, supports affected employees by providing administrative support, including assistance with workers’ compensation benefit applications, facilitating communication, and recommending policies to assist affected employees.
  • We are working closely with posts that have reported multiple incidents to ensure they and affected individuals have all the support they need.
  • In addition to regular one-on-one calls with those affected, the Care Coordination Team and HIRTF host bi-monthly calls dedicated to individuals who were affected in Cuba and China.  We will expand this call to others soon, but also want to invest the necessary time with those individuals initially affected who continue to face a unique set of challenges.
  • The Department has set aside $27 million to pay costs for diagnosing and treating qualifying injuries (pursuant to Public Law 116-94, Division J, Title IX, Section 901), and is prepared to reserve additional funds pursuant to the HAVANA Act of 2021.

Communication

  • Secretary Blinken has met privately, in Washington and while traveling overseas, with employees afflicted by AHI, listening to their experiences and reiterating his focus on the issue.
  • Deputy Secretary McKeon hosted an unclassified townhall with U.S. Missions in Vienna to discuss the reports of possible AHIs in that country. We also have communicated with the entire Department workforce and overseas posts to inform all employees and family members on how to respond to AHIs and where to report these incidents.
  • In addition to senior level communications to the entire workforce, both the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Medical Services have communicated to their workforces to underscore the importance of taking every report of AHIs seriously and providing updated guidance on how to respond to these incidents.
  • We are working with regional bureaus to ensure appropriate messaging is sent out to employees and family members about AHIs as they consider their next postings.
  • HIRTF has released multiple communications to Department personnel that highlight reporting protocols, share latest updates and knowledge on the Department’s standardized response to posts who report possible AHI, and reinforce HIRTF as the first line of defense for all AHI-related resources, support from Washington, press engagement, and foreign engagement.
  • We brief Congress on developments to ensure transparency and share best practices on AHIs.

Training/Briefings

  • HIRTF is collaborating with the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) to include AHI-related content within the Security Overseas Seminar for employees and their families to be posted overseas.
  • All overseas employees and spouses will receive information on AHIs during their initial security briefing at post.
    We will continue to incorporate AHIs in training opportunities as they become available.

Investigations/Inspections

  • All reported incidents are investigated.
  • Security specialists and occupational safety experts conduct surveys and inspections of reported incident locations.
  • We continue to supply additional and enhanced inspection equipment to overseas engineering services centers to more rapidly and effectively respond to reported incidents.
    Protections

We have taken a number of important steps, none of which we can detail publicly, to protect our personnel.