More than 49,000 Afghan evacuees who have reached the U.S. have been vaccinated for chickenpox and measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), the Department of Homeland Security announced Monday, taking a victory lap after mass outbreaks had shut down airlift operations.
Health officials say they also are offering the coronavirus, polio and other vaccines to the new arrivals, but it was outbreaks of chickenpox and measles that become the latest embarrassment for the Biden administration’s mass evacuation of people out of Kabul.
“The success of this vaccination campaign demonstrates our commitment to the health and well-being of arriving Afghan evacuees, the personnel assisting this mission, and the American people,” said Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, Homeland Security’s chief medical officer.
Almost all of the Afghan arrivals came under special “humanitarian parole,” meaning they were admitted under the exclusive say-so of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
One of the conditions for parole is to seek the vaccines.
The department said it is trying to keep the Afghan evacuees at the military bases where they were sent at least through a 21-day period after the MMR vaccine, following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But there is no requirement that Afghans stay for 21 days or even to get the vaccines. Some have walked away from the bases immediately after arriving.
Under the conditions of parole, they are supposed to take steps to get the vaccines themselves while out in the community.
The CDC had ordered quarantines two weeks ago after measles cases were found at several of the eight military bases where the Afghans were taken.
Rep. Tom Tiffany, Wisconsin Republican, said at one point 600 Afghans were in quarantine of 13,000 evacuees at Fort McCoy in his home state.
The U.S. had paused bringing in new Afghans amid the outbreaks.
President Biden last month signed an executive order adding measles to the list of required vaccines.
Homeland Security said vaccinations are being given at the overseas sites where Afghans are being taken before being flown to the U.S.
The Washington Times reported in August that some Afghans had already disappeared from Fort McCoy, even as the airlift operations were still underway.
On Monday, Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, sent a letter to Mr. Mayorkas demanding answers about the “independent departures,” which he said now total “hundreds” of evacuees.
Among his questions were what tools the government has to track the whereabouts of walk-offs and how many evacuees have current confirmed locations.