On the Front Lines of Diplomacy, but at the Back of the Vaccine Queue

WASHINGTON — In the best of times, working at the United States Embassy in Pristina, Kosovo, was always difficult: Pollution, poor electricity, unreliable internet service and a substandard health system there rendered it a hardship post for American diplomats.

That was before the coronavirus pandemic.

In a cautionary cable sent last week to State Department headquarters, the American ambassador in Pristina, Philip S. Kosnett, described increasingly dire conditions for his staff, including depression and burnout, after nearly a year of trying to balance the public-facing duties of diplomacy during the pandemic.

He said many embassy employees felt unsafe going outside, shopping for groceries or getting medical checkups in a country that disdained face masks. Others reported to the office regardless, unable to gain access to government systems from home, to keep up with work demands with a staff thinned out by virus-related departures.

Mr. Kosnett said he had not yet received vaccines for his diplomats, even though doses were given to some State Department employees based in Washington starting two months ago.

“It is more difficult to accept the department’s logic for prioritizing vaccination for rear-echelon personnel in Washington,” Mr. Kosnett, a career diplomat, wrote in the cable, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. “Until the department is able to provide vaccines to posts like Pristina, the impact of the pandemic to health, welfare and productivity will remain profound.”

His concerns, reported earlier by NBC News, have been echoed by American diplomats working in Europe, the Middle East and South America, who complain that the State Department’s rollout of the vaccine has been disjointed at best.

At worst, some diplomats said, it left the distinct impression that the needs of senior leaders and employees based in the United States were more pressing than those of personnel living in countries with rising virus cases or no modern health care systems — or, in some cases, both.

The outcry represents a muted but widespread mutiny among the American diplomatic corps, the first so far of Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s tenure.

Some career employees at the State Department have also grumbled about political appointees being tapped for plum posts, despite Mr. Blinken’s pledge to promote from within.

But the department’s internal schism over vaccine distribution has resonated particularly in light of President Biden’s pledge to speed doses to Americans and after Mr. Blinken noted last month that the pandemic had killed five American citizens and 42 locally employed staff members at embassies and consulates around the world.

In at least two cables to the department work force this month, Mr. Blinken and other senior officials sounded pained in trying to assure frontline diplomats that they, too, would be vaccinated, if they chose, as soon as doses were available.

“The unfortunate and difficult reality is that there are more places that need doses immediately than we have the supply to accommodate,” Carol Z. Perez, the acting under secretary of management, said in the latest cable, dated Monday, to update all diplomatic and consular posts on the department’s virus response. “I understand the frustration, and we are doing everything we can to fill these gaps.”

She said the next tranche of doses for employees, expected next month, would be sent “almost exclusively overseas,” given that personnel in “critical infrastructure” jobs in Washington had been vaccinated.

Yet the cable, which was signed by Mr. Blinken, said it was not clear how many doses the State Department would receive from the government’s vaccine campaign in March — nor where, exactly, they would be sent.

The department so far has received about 73,400 vaccine doses, or about 23 percent of the 315,000 requested for its employees, families and other household members of American diplomats who are posted overseas, foreign-born staff members working at embassies and consulates abroad, and contractors.

Eighty percent of those vaccines have been sent overseas — on par with the number of full-time State Department employees who work abroad, if not their family members or contractors. But diplomats noted higher risks of infection and lower quality of health care in many countries that were not at all comparable to conditions in the United States.

One official based in the Middle East said that the medical staff in some American embassies had been sent back to Washington to administer vaccines to officials there, leaving the impression that overseas personnel were not a priority.

Just as across the United States, officials at the department’s headquarters have struggled with delivering a vaccine that requires subzero temperature controls to more than 270 diplomatic posts worldwide. In recent weeks, the State Department obtained more than 200 freezers for embassies and consulates to use for storing the vaccines, 80 percent of which had been delivered, Ms. Perez said.

She also acknowledged “missteps,” such as in December, when an unspecified number of doses that were stored at the wrong temperature in Washington needed to be used immediately or go to waste. They were given to department employees who were put on a priority list by their managers and able to come to the medical unit at State Department headquarters on short notice during the holidays.

Much of the first tranche of doses went to the department’s frontline workers: medical, maintenance and diplomatic security personnel, and officials who work in round-the-clock operations centers that monitor diplomatic and security developments around the world. Vaccines were also given to employees at the State Department’s missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

What was left over, for the most part, went to Washington-area employees who worked from government offices at least eight hours each week.

In January, diplomats in Mexico City, across West Africa and in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, received the vaccine — as did employees at passport offices in Arkansas, New Hampshire and New Orleans. Additional Washington-area employees were also given doses.

This month, the bulk of the doses were designated for diplomatic posts in East Africa and southern Africa, as well as remaining Washington-area employees who regularly work from the office and staff at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York.

Separately, a senior department official said on Tuesday that about a dozen senior Trump administration appointees were also vaccinated before they left government, although the official refused to identify who they were.

Some diplomats abroad have said it might be faster to get the coronavirus vaccine from the nations in which they are posted rather than waiting for the State Department. In the cable on Monday, Ms. Perez said that would be allowed by at least 17 foreign governments so far, as long as they met American legal and safety standards.

She also said the State Department was the only federal agency that had used every vaccine it had received from the Department of Health and Human Services without wasting or spoiling any doses. “I wish we had more,” she said.

Despite the widespread exasperation, at least some diplomats overseas said they also understood that the global demands for the vaccine had far outpaced the supply — even if, they said, the State Department could have planned better months ago to secure more doses.

In Pristina, where about 20 percent of embassy employees have been infected by the virus, Mr. Kosnett said staff morale had plummeted since the vaccine rollout was announced. He said many diplomats there doubted the embassy would ever receive doses, and some believed that the State Department cared little for their plight.

He and other senior embassy officials “can and must do more locally to address morale issues,” Mr. Kosnett wrote in the cable.

“But we would ask that Washington do more, too,” he said. “Repeatedly raising expectations, then dashing hopes with regards to vaccine distribution, has taken a hard toll on our community’s outlook for the future.”

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