KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Secretary of State Antony Blinken cut short his trip to Southeast Asia on Wednesday after a member of the press corps accompanying him on his visits tested positive for the coronavirus.
The omicron variant of the virus is spreading rapidly across the globe, disrupting business and international travel. The victims now include Blinken’s first official visit to Southeast Asia, where he has hoped to counter Chinese influence in the strategic and economically dynamic region.
“We learned this morning, through our routine PCR testing, that a member of our traveling press pool tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Kuala Lumpur,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in statement.
The journalist tested negative in Blinken’s previous stop, in Jakarta, but after testing positive in Kuala Lumpur, began a quarantine for at least 10 days before returning to the United States.
“The individual who tested positive will remain in isolation, and we will continue to adhere to and go beyond CDC guidance, including with our rigorous testing protocol, for the remaining traveling party,” Price said.
Price said Blinken expressed his “deep regret” to the foreign minister of Thailand that “he would not be able to visit Bangkok this week.”
“He explained that, in order to mitigate the risk of the spread of covid-19 and to prioritize the health and safety of the U.S. traveling party and those they would otherwise come into contact with, the secretary would be returning to Washington, D.C., out of an abundance of caution.”
In a statement, Price said Blinken and his “senior staff” tested negative, leaving open the possibility that other members of his crew tested positive.
The highly contagious omicron, which is quickly overtaking delta as the predominant variant in the pandemic, is spreading amid a flurry of travel ahead of the holiday season.
Among Blinken’s traveling entourage, the prospect of testing positive for the virus and having to remain in Southeast Asia for a 10-day quarantine loomed large.
Instead of resting overnight in Bangkok on Wednesday and meeting with Thai officials in the morning, the State Department said, Blinken would do a quick layover in Thailand for logistical reasons and then make refueling stops in Guam and Hawaii.
A key focus of Blinken’s trip has been criticizing China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and working with U.S. partners to counter anti-democratic practices and corruption in the region. Blinken flew to the region following Biden’s democracy summit in Washington.