U.S. Doesn't 'Have the Capacity to Test' for COVID-19 as Thousands Evacuate Afghanistan

As thousands of Americans and allies flee Afghanistan following the Taliban's takeover, the U.S. State Department admitted that few are being tested for the deadly coronavirus as cases surge in American and abroad.

"At the airport, we don't—at present—have the capacity to test everyone," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Thursday.

The United States has evacuated more than 7,000 people since Saturday. Another 6,000 people have been processed at the airport and are expected to be flown to the U.S., Qatar or other countries in the region overnight, Price noted.

Photos have shown evacuees tightly packed aboard Air Force cargo planes, and the thousands who are waiting to be airlifted have filled gate terminals at Hamid Karzai International Airport.

"Our first priority is to get as many people out as we can," Price said. "What we are doing, depending on where these individuals go—there are several transit countries—we sometimes will be testing in those third countries, but our first priority right now is to bring as many people to safety as we can."

The State Department doesn't know how many American citizens remain in Afghanistan, as people aren't required to register their location with the government.

"The president has been very clear that we are going to do as much as we can for as long as we can," Price said when asked about a possible timeline.

He noted that the U.S. military is working to build up to 5,000 to 9,000 evacuees per day in the coming days.

"We have reached out to more and more individuals, instructing them to consider traveling to the airport, if they are able to do so," Price said.

More than 624,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19 as the pandemic has raged around the globe. An estimated 4.5 million people were felled by coronavirus worldwide.

The U.S. has recently seen a resurgence in coronavirus cases as the new and more contagious Delta variant spreads.

But Price said U.S. military and diplomatic channels haven't been enforcing many of the safety protocols that health experts recommend, including social distancing and regular testing ahead of travel.

"Ultimately, the metric we care about most is the number of people we're able to repatriate here in the United States or bring into third countries," he said.

The United States has ramped up evacuations for U.S. Embassy employees, American citizens living in Afghanistan, and Afghan allies since the Taliban seized control of the country over the weekend.

President Joe Biden had set a deadline to have troops out of Afghanistan by the end of August—putting an end to the longest war in U.S. history just ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Biden defended his decision to withdraw troops during an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos on Wednesday—his first time answering a reporters' questions on the situation since Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.

"There is no good time to leave Afghanistan—15 years ago would've been a problem, 15 years from now," Biden said. "The basic choice is, 'am I gonna send your sons and your daughters to war in Afghanistan in perpetuity?'"

Thousands flee Afghanistan amid Taliban takeover
People carry the Afghanistan's national flag on the occasion of 102th Independence Day of the country in the Wazi Akbar khan area of Kabul on August 19, 2021 amid the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. Hoshang Hashimi / AFP/Getty Images