The race is on to repatriate thousands of Australians stuck in the US as cases of coronavirus skyrocket and deaths top 1000, behind only China and Italy.
Flight options are running out as airlines prepare to cut flights within days.
The World Health Organisation has already warned America could become the next virus epicentre.
It comes as the first rescue flight to evacuate hundreds of Australians and New Zealanders trapped in Peru is set to leave on Sunday. One-way tickets on the flight cost at least $5000.
The Australians in South America will be taken from their hotels under police escort to the flight, which has involved delicate negotiations with Foreign Minister Marise Payne.
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Australia’s consulate-general in Los Angeles, Chelsey Martin, issued a stark message urging Australians in the US who wanted to return home to not waste any time.
Qantas and Virgin Australia are about to cease flights from the US to Australia. United Airlines will continue a limited schedule.
“Whatever your circumstances, given the escalating COVID-19 crisis I wanted to reach out and encourage any Australians wishing to go home to do so as soon as possible,” Ms Martin said in a video message posted on the LA consulate’s Twitter page.
“After the end of this week, commercial flight options will be incredibly limited.
“Qantas’ final scheduled flight is out of LAX (Los Angeles) on Friday, the 27th of March.
“Virgin’s final scheduled flight out of LAX is on Sunday the 29th of March.
“United Airlines has advised us that they will continue with a limited flight schedule from San Francisco to Sydney in the weeks ahead, but the situation is changing rapidly and I would encourage anyone who is still deciding whether or not they would like to return to Australia, not to delay taking that decision.
“These are unprecedented and anxious times for many.”
— Chelsey Martin (@AusConsulateLA) March 25, 2020
The US is fast becoming a virus epicentre with 75,233 cases and 1070 deaths (Friday morning). Retail shutdowns have also forced a record 3.3 million more people to register as unemployed.
New York is the country’s hotspot, with 37,000 confirmed diagnoses and 1290 people fighting for their lives in intensive care.
Cases in the bustling metropolis are doubling every three days.
Initial claims for unemployment benefits rose to 3.28 million last week from a revised 282,000 the previous week. That eclipsed the previous record of 695,000 set in 1982, the US Labor Department said on Thursday.
Economists had forecast claims would rise to one million, but estimates have been as high as four million.
The jobless blowout was announced shortly after Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell told NBC the US “may well be in recession”, but progress in controlling the spread of the coronavirus would dictate when the economy could fully reopen.
Ms Martin said the LA consulate would remain open “around the clock” to provide consular assistance.
Australians were also being urged to follow the consulate on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for information updates.