ISLAMABAD - Dozens of people at the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan have tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting officials to lock down much of the diplomatic mission.
Officials say one person has already died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, 114 people have been placed in quarantine and several people medically evacuated. Officials say 95 percent of the cases involve people who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine or who are not fully vaccinated. A person is fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving the second shot in a two-shot regimen or two weeks after receiving the one-shot Johnson & Johnson dose.
Officials say that because of the outbreak, group activities are banned and that until the chain of transmission is broken, the restrictions will remain in force. They say military medical facilities are at full capacity and that temporary COVID-19 wards have been set up to provide oxygen to those who need it. The embassy says people will only be allowed to leave confinement for food or to exercise outdoors, alone.
Authorities also say anyone violating the policy will be sent out of the country on the next available flight.
The outbreak comes as the United States withdraws military forces from Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of war.
The number of coronavirus cases in Afghanistan has sharply risen over the past few weeks, threatening to overwhelm the conflict-torn country's fragile health system.
Afghan officials on Thursday recorded 2,313 positive cases and 101 deaths from the pandemic since Wednesday, the highest reported deaths in a single day since the outbreak hit the country in early 2020. The latest official figures increased the national tally of infections and deaths to nearly 99,000 and more than 3,900 respectively.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) warned in a statement that infection rates in Afghanistan have climbed by 2,400 percent in the past month. It noted 34 percent of tests returned positive results last week, pointing to many thousands of undiagnosed infections.
"Afghanistan is at a crisis point in the battle to contain COVID-19 as hospital beds are full to capacity in the capital Kabul and in many areas," an IFRC statement quoted Nilab Mobarez, acting president of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, as saying.
"This surge is fast spiraling out of control adding huge pressures on our fragile health system and millions of people living in poverty," said Mobarez. "We fear that we are just a heartbeat away from the kind of horror that we have already seen in countries like India and Nepal."
India's COVID-19 outbreak has broken records for cases and deaths, though daily case numbers have been declining there since mid-May. But the Indian variant has spread to neighboring Nepal, where it is causing massive infections and straining a less-resourced health system.
India recorded 29.7 million cases and 382,000 deaths while Nepal reported 614,000 and 8,558 as of Thursday.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs suspected Thursday the Delta variant, first detected in India, could be responsible for the recent spike in Afghan cases.
"While Afghanistan lacks in-country facilities to test for the variant that originated in India, concern over the variant's spread is high as many of the patients hospitalized over the last four weeks have a history of recently returning from India or having contact with people who have," the agency said in a statement.
Meanwhile, hospitals around Afghanistan have refused to accept new coronavirus patients, citing a lack of beds and oxygen shortages.
The global agency was working with Afghan authorities to provide more resources and try and boost medical oxygen production, said Necephor Mghendi, the head of the Afghanistan country delegation for IFRC.
"More international support is needed to help win this race against this virus, so we can save thousands of lives," he said.
Afghan officials and aid groups say Afghanistan is also dealing with a vaccine shortfall exacerbated by a high level of hesitancy.
"Less than half a percent" of the country's estimated 35 million population has so far been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to IFCR.
Adherence to safety measures such as wearing mask and physical distancing to prevent the disease from spreading are said to be "very low" across the country.
China donated around 700,000 doses of its Sinopharm vaccine last week, enabling Afghan authorities to start the next round of its national inoculation drive.
Afghanistan, one of the powers and most disaster-prone countries in Asia, is currently also in the grip of one of the worst drought crises in decades. The United Nations estimates nearly half the population is grappling with food shortages stemming from the drought.
Meanwhile, neighboring Pakistan has donated urgently needed medical supplies to Afghanistan, including ventilators, oxygen cylinders, personal protective equipment and other gear required to combat COVID19. The Afghan Foreign Ministry issued a statement welcoming the donation.