As the Palau-Taiwan travel bubble prepares to open on April 1, personnel from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sought to address community concerns by emphasizing that the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) pre-testing and vaccination standards are safe.
Dr. Richard Brostom, CDC Regional Coordinator for the US Pacific who has been facilitating vaccine distributions with the arrival of the HHS team this month, addressed concerns posed by the media regarding the resumption of travel into Palau at this Wednesday’s press conference, by defending the system which the MOH has in place as “a public health system that’s strong and prepared”.
“The PPE is here, the extra ventilators are here, the medications are here and more are coming this week, and most importantly the vaccine is here, and Palau is excelling with it,” said Dr. Brostrom.
Dr. Brostrom said that the vaccine, although not perfect, is “our best weapon so far” in the “ongoing battle” against COVID. While Moderna generally demonstrates 95 percent effectiveness, Dr. Brostrom said that there remains 5 percent who are still vulnerable even after vaccination, although the likelihood of being severely sick with COVID after vaccination is very low. He alluded to a case of a frontline worker in Saipan who tested positive for COVID last week, even though they were already fully vaccinated. The frontline worker, however, was asymptomatic.
“It’s an imperfect vaccine, like all vaccines are,” said Dr. Brostrom. “But it’s very good.” He went on to say that the vaccine is made so those who have received it do not get sick, go to the hospital, or die from the virus.
He added that being vaccinated also makes it far less likely to transmit COVID from one person to another, because of the much lower number of viruses in the bodies of those who have been vaccinated.
In response to concerns that the vaccine may prove ineffective against variants of the virus, Dr. Brostrom said that Moderna seems to work well against most of the variants. While some variants have changes which may lessen its effectiveness from 95 percent to something lower, he said that there has yet to be a variant against which the vaccine has offered no protection.
He also addressed concerns that a positive COVID case would overwhelm Palau’s hospital. According to Dr. Brostrom, the majority of COVID cases are not severe, and in most cases those with COVID only need to be isolated and not hospitalized. He said that, in the event that someone with COVID must be hospitalized, models successfully used in hospitals in the Mariana Islands have demonstrated that COVID cases can be isolated in special rooms with only a few medical personnel tending to them, without fear of spreading it to the rest of the hospital. Palau is also equipped with oxygen, steroids, and remdesivir for medication.
While right now only those 18 years or older can be vaccinated, Dr. Brostrom says that clinical trials are continuing to establish the safety of the vaccine for those who are younger, and expressed optimism that its use to vaccinate children down to age eleven or ten would be cleared by late summer or early fall. He added that in general, the risk of getting sick with COVID is much lower in children, who normally react to it as they would to a common cold. Children are also much less likely to spread it, he said.
As of March 17, 8,083 first doses of the Moderna vaccine have been administered in Palau, and 3,098 second doses have been administered, putting the percentage of Palau’s adult population which is fully vaccinated at 24 percent. The MOH projects that Palau’s adult population will be completely vaccinated by June.
According to a presentation delivered by Mr. Gaafar Uherbelau, MOH EOC Deputy Incident Commander, visitors departing from Taipei in the travel bubble will have been in Taiwan for at least 14 days and received a negative COVID-test before arriving in Palau, and will stay in Palau for a maximum of eight days. According to the presentation, statistically, one in every four-million visitors from Taiwan who have not been tested will be a COVID-carrier.
The MOH plans to recommend new protocols in the next MOH directive. The proposals include allowing fully vaccinated travelers from Guam who have received negative COVID tests two-to-three days before departure to enter Palau with restricted movement and mask-wearing for seven days after arrival, while travelers from Guam who have not been vaccinated will continue to quarantine for two weeks after arrival.