Client getting interviewed by HHS medical personnel before getting the Moderna vaccine for COVId-19. Photo credit to ONgerung Kambes Kesolei

A team of 15 medical professionals from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in partnership with the Ministry of Health (MOH), are conducting mass COVID vaccinations at Palau National Gym, beginning this past Tuesday and continuing until March 22.

As the percentage of Palau’s population which has received both doses of the Moderna vaccine surpasses 17 percent, vaccinations are continuing to be given to the last of the non-communicable disease (NCD) patients, adults with underlying conditions and the elderly, frontline workers, and other essential workers such as those in utilities, communication, hotels, and finance. The MOH says that mass vaccinations for the general public will begin sometime this month, maybe as early as next week.

Right now, an estimated 90 percent of the elderly in Palau are fully vaccinated, and an estimated 95 percent of frontline workers are vaccinated.

According to HHS workers, on March 9, the first day of their operations in Palau, the team exceeded its goal of administering 350 doses and administered 401.  

The team landed in Palau on Sunday night’s flight, in response to a request made from the US Embassy. While they were not required to undergo quarantine, all personnel have been fully vaccinated and tested negative for COVID upon arrival.

The 15 medical professionals, consisting of eleven personnel from the Trauma Critical Care Team (TCCT), two team commanders, a safety officer, and a subject medical expert from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), come to Palau after conducting similar vaccination efforts in the US, as well as other COVID-related programs such as ventilator management and medical countermeasures.

Dr. Richard Brostom, CDC Regional Coordinator for the US Pacific, pointed out that Palau has a huge advantage in being able to conduct vaccinations with no COVID in the country.

“All that hard work from the past year has paid off,” said Dr. Brostom. “For example, [here] you can see people sitting close to each other. In the vaccine centers in the US people have to be at least six feet away. It’s a slower process in general, and it takes more time and people.”

The HHS professionals are currently administering the vaccines themselves, with nurses from MOH helping in the screening process. Right now, they are scheduled to leave Palau before administering the second doses, which should be given four weeks after the first, but the HHS personnel say that they are looking into options of returning to administer that dose. Otherwise, the second dose will be given by MOH professionals.

Phil Nix, Team Commander of TCCT, stressed that the vaccines are “tested” and “safe”.

“These vaccinations have been tested for a long period of time,” said Commander Nix. “And now we’re really seeing the results of this. They are safe . . . and now we’re seeing they’re very effective.”

The CDC has distributed over 123 million vaccinations and administered 95.7 million in the US. COVID cases have more than halved in the US since its peak this January, but Dr. Brostom said that, in addition to vaccinations, this is also due to factors such as seasonal changes and the “natural cycle” of COVID spikes.

The MOH continues to aim for a target of vaccinating 80 percent of the population of Palau before fully reopening borders. According to Mr. Gaafar Uherbelau, MOH EOC Deputy Incident Commander, the MOH is hoping to have vaccinated at least 70 percent of Palau’s population by the end of May.

Dr. Brostom, however, emphasized that the CDC will be allocating enough doses for Palau to fully vaccinate its population, adding that, when it comes to herd immunity, “more is better”.

“Herd immunity depends on the infectiousness of the variant,” said Dr. Brostom. “It can get pretty complicated. But we know that more is better and we want to protect especially the very high-risk individuals who are in Palau . . . If we can [vaccinate] past 80 percent to 90 percent or even higher, more the better.”

He added, however, that CDC rules are changing as medical experts learn more about the protection given by the shots. Medical trials have shown that the Moderna vaccine offers around 95 percent immunity two weeks after the second dose is administered. However, Dr. Brostom said that there is a low risk that someone who is protected from the virus’ symptoms is still infectious to others, a risk which the CDC is currently trying to better understand.

Mr. Uherbelau thinks that the hesitancy he could see in the community to take the vaccine when vaccinations first began in January is starting to ebb as more doses are administered, and that confidence in the vaccine, the process, and the people involved has increased in Palau.

According to Mr. Uherbelau, the social media has played a big role in people’s perceptions of the vaccine, both as a tool of communication between the MOH and the community, but also as a means of spreading false rumors.

“We’re able to reach more people simultaneously through the different MOH social media platforms,” said Mr. Uherbelau. “At the same time, it also creates opportunities for local residents to get misinformation, mainly from outside and from family members abroad.”

Commander Nix echoed his sentiment about the low risk of side-effects posed by vaccinations.

“Once in a while you hear about an allergic reaction . . . that can happen with anything,” said Commander Nix.

200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine were also shipped into Palau yesterday afternoon. According to Mr. Uherbelau, these doses will be used to target the homebound, due to the vaccine requiring only one dose to fully vaccinate a patient, as opposed to Moderna’s two-dose requirement, and because the cold-chain requirement is not as specific as Moderna’s. Mr. Uherbelau also said that future shipments of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines will be used to vaccinate people in the Southwest Islands.

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