Peace Corps recalls more than 7,000 volunteers but not all properly screened for COVID-19, some say

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Eswatini, Africa
The sun sets at 22-year-old Mikayla Brewer’s post in Eswatini, Africa Nov. 19, 2019. Valley News/Courtesy photo

For the first time, the Peace Corps has sent back over 7,000 volunteers globally due to the coronavirus outbreak. While they’ve been sending volunteers back, some of the volunteers said they weren’t exactly screened for COVID-19 upon their arrival back to the states.

Mikayla Brewer, a 22-year-old from Temecula was stationed at Eswatini, Africa, on a two-year commitment before being pulled out within a matter of days. Her initial training had only started six months before.

“I was at training to start on projects in my community, starting a boys club, a Girls for Health club, and we were about to start working on a positive discipline workshop for our teachers to stop corporal punishment,” Brewer said. “All of those projects don’t get to take place now because as a volunteer I’m no longer there to help plan and see them through, to help them get the resources and the grant money to do that.”

Samantha Lee, a 23-year-old from Dallas, Texas, who was also stationed in Eswatini, Africa, alongside Brewer, had been working in a clinic type setup there on several projects as well.

“My clinic was focusing on improving the supply chain management of HIV pharmaceuticals,” Lee said. “We also were working on primary prevention of new HIV infections through comprehensive special education, and also providing support to people and income generating projects.”

Brewer wasn’t surprised by the orders.

“Every Peace Corp volunteer globally has gotten recalled,” she said. “Africa hadn’t really been affected to that point. We had one case in Eswatini as of Friday, March 13, and our girls for health training was canceled and then we were going to get adoptive training Monday through Wednesday and go back to site, but then we get interruptive service Saturday, we take the day and then Monday morning we get evacuation orders from headquarters.”

Brewer said they are being treated as though their service had ended, though they hope at some point they’ll be able to return.

“Right now, specifically Eswatini’s post is still open and running by our host country nationals who work for the Peace Corp,” Brewer said. “Almost all people who work for the Peace Corp at post are native to that country. They’re still keeping our positions running, and they’re still working really hard for us in the hopes that we can return.”

While Brewer was able to get home quicker than most, other volunteers haven’t been as lucky.

“I know some of the volunteers are still working to get home and have had over 100-plus travel days with evacuations because flights keep getting canceled,” Brewer said. “The good news is for a lot of volunteers if they’re trapped and planes go down, there’s the policy for Peace Corp that they try to put you on commercial and if they can’t, they’ll charter a plane and if they can’t, they’ll get a military flight to come get you and bring you back.”

The possibility of returning in six months is optimistic.

“Right now they’ve told us we have a year to return to site,” Brewer said. “It’s up to the country director to decide if he will accept us back to our specific sites and locations, which could change, and they could change or close our service.”

These changes could mean that instead of Brewer finishing her service in December 2021, it could be the following year, but after the year was completed, they’d need to reapply altogether and there isn’t a guarantee that volunteers will end up back at their original post.

Brewer and Lee both said they weren’t really screened for COVID-19 upon reentering the states.

“I flew Eswatini to South Africa, South Africa to Qatar, Qatar to Chicago and Chicago to San Diego, and the only place that did any kind of screening was South Africa,” Brewer said. “They checked our temperatures before we were allowed to get into the airport. No one else did anything else.”

For Lee, she didn’t remember getting her temperature checked upon arriving back in Dallas.

“I had a health form that I had to present at Dallas, but I think I only got my temperature taken in Dubai,” she said.

All members returning are required a 14-day self-isolation period, along with other tasks you have to complete to close service.

“You have a final wellness exam; they give you the rest of your medication, but because they evacuated all of us at once and because they evacuated us so quickly, there wasn’t time to do final checkup exams,” Brewer said.

That’s just one concern, however.

“We all have to do exams within the next 90 days, which is kind of hard because you can’t get into health facilities right now. And we all have to try to get the medications that some of us got but not all of us because there were shortages,” she said.

Jodie Olsen, current director of the Peace Corps, first sent the announcement. While volunteers feel they have ended their service, Olsen released a statement that they would “temporarily suspend volunteer operations” as of March 15.

In the most recent statement from Olsen, it said that “the Peace Corps is not closing posts, and volunteers will be able to return to normal activities as soon as conditions permit,” so there is hope that they will be able to return, it’s just a matter of when.

In an email statement from the Peace Corps, they said approximately 7,000 volunteers from 60 countries have been evacuated at this point. The organization also said that in regards to COVID-19, Peace Corps has established a 24-hour hotline to assist people with access to care, and the requirement for testing is determined by the volunteer’s local health care provider. In addition, if testing for COVID-19 is required, it is a covered benefit.

“We had family and friends we had to leave behind, and we didn’t get to say goodbye properly to a lot of people,” Brewer said. “It’s like you’ve lost that sense of completion.”

Lexington Howe can be reached by email at valleystaff@reedermedia.com.