MAJURO (MARIANAS VARIETY) — With the border opening looming in the Marshall Islands, there is increasing talk in the community about the arrival of Covid in a nation that has remained free of the virus throughout the pandemic, able to keep Covid at bay through strict quarantine measures.
With the government’s announced plan to eliminate quarantine after 01 October1, there are more questions than answers in the conversations: Are we ready, will there be lockdowns, will schools and businesses be closed?
Neighboring Federated States of Micronesia opened its borders officially Monday this week. But Covid slipped into Pohnpei and Kosrae a month before the border opened. The Covid wave in the 16 days since the first cases were confirmed on July 18 has caused 11 deaths, nine in Pohnpei and two in Kosrae.
Will the Marshall Islands experience the same fate as the FSM of Covid spread before its official bordering opening? Last month’s 40 positive cases in managed quarantine, and this month the largest-ever number of people in five separate quarantine facilities is stretching to the limit the Ministry of Health and Human Services and others involved in quarantine operations. And Covid positive cases continue to show in quarantine.
Last week’s day-three Covid testing and tests earlier this week of nearly 200 people in quarantine at Majuro and Kwajalein sites confirmed the first-ever positive Covid cases in Majuro hospital’s Covid isolation ward, two of a group of returning medical referral patients. Three more tested positive in the rural quarantine facility in Majuro, one was positive in the Marshall Islands repatriation group at the U.S Army base Kwajalein, three in the Army’s weekly repatriation group, and one on a vessel in Majuro lagoon — bringing the total to 10 active Covid cases in managed quarantine as of Wednesday this week. The super-contagious BA.5, now the dominant Covid variant, magnifies the risk and opportunity for spread from quarantine.
In addition, the Cabinet last month approved a reduction in quarantine time from 14 to 10 days. Although most Covid cases in managed quarantine appear in the first week, there have been outliers identified late in the previous 14-day quarantine, say Health authorities.
With the Cabinet’s decision to open the borders October 1, the Marshall Islands is guaranteed to see its first Covid cases soon after that date as people from the outside world arrive for the first time since March 2020 without the need of quarantine.
FSM President David Panuelo declared last weekend that the FSM national government will not require lockdowns despite ongoing Covid community spread in Pohnpei and Kosrae. In the Marshall Islands, the matter has not been decided. Chief Secretary Kino Kabua, who heads the Marshall Islands National Disaster Committee, said that the matter is under discussion between the NDC and Cabinet.
Meanwhile, in Pohnpei, mask wearing in public facilities is a requirement. But the wildfire-like spread of Covid — the FSM said there had been 6,291 cases since community spread was confirmed — has closed or reduced the hours for banks, businesses and offices due to workers being infected with Covid.
A report from the Kosrae State Department of Health Services showed that in nine days after 18 July, health staff tested 1,009 people and 746 tested positive. That’s a nearly 75% positive rate in Kosrae. Monday last week, Kosrae Governor Carson Sigrah issued a directive requiring all government workers to be vaccinated or their salaries will be withheld. He also decreed that students at all grade levels must be vaccinated to remain in school, and ordered masking in all public and private gathering places.
The other two states in the FSM, Chuuk and Yap, remain free of community transmission. Both reached agreement this week with the FSM national government to maintain mandatory quarantine for inbound travelers.
The Marshall Islands has not made vaccinations mandatory for government workers, but it is increasing the tempo of its effort to get everyone vaccinated against Covid. Now vaccines are available for everyone from six months of age and up. Last week, the Ministry of Health and Human Services opened four community locations to provide vaccines to the public in an effort to ramp up the country’s vaccination levels.
A Covid report issued Wednesday last week the Ministry of Health and Human Services shows 70% of the country is fully vaccinated and another 15% is partially vaccinated. The ministry launched vaccines for young children six months and older beginning 18 July.
“We are the only country in the world that has been able to hold off this virus long enough so that we could offer vaccines to all age groups from six months and up before a community outbreak has occurred,” said Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal this week. He added a sense of urgency to the task, reminding people who have not been vaccinated that the Covid vaccine does not provide immediate protection. For the Pfizer and Moderna brand vaccines, it takes two shots spaced a month apart for the vaccines to be most effective. “Don’t wait,” was his message…. PACNEWS