The Peace Corps announced on Sunday it was temporarily suspending all operations and evacuating its thousands of volunteers located in roughly 60 countries because of the widespread coronavirus outbreak.
COVID-19 has infected at least 169,000 people across 120 countries and territories, resulting in 6,512 deaths. In the U.S., at least 49 states plus the District of Columbia have reported confirmed cases of COVID-19, tallying over 3,700 illnesses and 69 deaths.
"It is against this backdrop that I have made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend all Peace Corps operations globally and evacuate all of our Volunteers," said director Director Jody Olsen in an open letter to the organization's volunteers. "As COVID-19 continues to spread and international travel becomes more and more challenging by the day, we are acting now to safeguard your well-being and prevent a situation where Volunteers are unable to leave their host countries."
The organization's headquarters remain open and agency personnel are working "24/7" to support volunteers and staff oversees. They recently evacuated volunteers from China and Mongolia due to the virus and further evacuations are ongoing at several posts.
She reiterated that the evacuations represent a temporary suspension of volunteer activities temporary and don't represent a permanent closure.
"We are not closing posts, and we will be ready to return to normal operations when conditions permit, Olsen added. "Importantly, our host country staff will remain in their current positions. They play a critical role in every element of the Peace Corps mission, especially in a time of crisis."
The Peace Corps was established in 1961 during the Kennedy administration as a government-run volunteer program serving nations around the world. Its website says over 235,000 Americans have served in 141 countries since its inception.
"Look for more information from your Country Director in the hours ahead. I deeply appreciate your patience and understanding as we work through these logistically challenging operations," she added. "My thoughts are with you, and I am incredibly grateful for your service."
The Associated Press contributed to this report