President Donald Trump on Thursday offered hope to University of South Alabama students who have been stranded in Peru because of the coronavirus.
The students are among hundreds of Americans who were not able to leave the South American nation after Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra announced Sunday he was closing his country’s borders and suspending international flights.
Trump said at a news conference that U.S. officials were exploring the possibility of using military aircraft to bring the students home.
“We have a group of young people, I think young men or young people; could be women also with them, from Alabama – the great state of Alabama,” the president said. “And they’re in Peru, and we’re working on that right now, trying to get them out. It’s a large group. It’s about 300. We’ll – we’re gonna work it out.”
University of South Alabama officials also have been trying to arrange for the return of the students, but spokesman Bob Lowry was unable to provide an update as of Thursday afternoon.
Joel Ellzie, a University of South Alabama emergency medical services instructor who is with the students in Peru, said the group made arrangements on Saturday to come home early because of concern about the virus. But Vizcarra gave only a little more than 24 hours’ notice.
Ellzie said two students managed to leave on Monday. But he said he and five students had a flight scheduled for 12:15 a.m. on Tuesday – 15 minutes after the cutoff. He said he was on the phone with airlines and the University of South Alabama travel agency for six hours.
“Our flight got canceled, and when we tried to rebook flights, it was impossible,” he told FOX10 News.
Added Winston McCleery, whose son is among the paramedic students who is stranded: “They were absolutely stuck. They had no option.”
Students from the University of South Alabama and three other colleges arrived in Peru on March 7 to gain first-hand experience in the medical field. Most were in Cusco, a city of more than 400,000 in southeastern Peru. Others were in the capital of Lima.
The students included graduate students training to be physician assistants and undergraduates studying to be paramedics and other medical disciplines.
Ellzie said he and several students were working at a women’s health clinic in Cusco. The nation has one of the world’s highest rates of cervical cancer.
He said the EMS students in the South Alabama program were the first to study abroad.
“It was historical in that, and then this happened,” he said.
Ellzie said the group has been living at the clinic trying to set up a charter flight or find some other way home. He said the group recently had a movie night.
“We’ve become a little family down here,” he said.
Ellzie said it is frustrating, but he added that they are not in danger and that he understands why Peru moved aggressively, even though it has fewer than 250 COVID-19 cases.
“We do not fault the Peruvian government for what they did,” he said. “They did what they did to save the Peruvian people from getting the coronavirus.”
McCleery told FOX10 News that he has no immediate fear for the students’ safety. But he said he is concerned they might not be able to come home until after the 15-day ban on international flights is over – or perhaps longer. He said the Peruvian government may extend that ban if the country continues to see more cases.
“We fully expect it to get worse,” he said.
Ellzie said the current situation reminds him a little of Hurricane Katrina, which he experienced as a paramedic in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.
“It’s very similar to what I went through in Katrina,” he said.
Ellzie was inside an Emergency Management Agency building that took a direct hit from the storm. His story inspired a Weather Channel special.
“He’s probably the best person who could be there for these kids,” McCleery said.
Ellzie said he and his students would rather be home. But at least they have their clothes and other belongings. That is not the case for the two students who got out, he said.
“Their luggage is still at the Lima airport,” he said.