(RNZ) The Marshall Islands became the first independent nation in the Pacific region to begin Covid-19 vaccinations on Tuesday as a group of high-ranking Marshall Islands leaders joined with Ministry of Health doctors and nurses to be the first to receive the United States government-provided vaccines.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) delivered to Majuro an initial batch of 1,200 vaccines Tuesday morning and the Ministry of Health wasted little time, rolling out the vaccine launch the same afternoon.
“We are getting vaccinated at the same time as people in the United States,” said Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal. “It is a great thing the US government is doing for us. This is a great day for all of us.”
“The worst of times could become the best of times,” said Taiwan Ambassador Jeffrey Hsiao at the vaccine launch. “With the arrival of the vaccines, the Marshall Islands is passing out of darkness into hope for the New Year.”
The US government also delivered a similar number of vaccines to the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. Both countries will launch their Covid vaccine drives in January.
All three nations that share a free association relationship with Washington chose the Moderna brand vaccine over Pfizer because it is logistically easier for these remote islands to handle, said Niedenthal.
The only other islands in the region to begin administering Covid vaccines are the US-affiliated islands of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, which started their Covid immunization programs in mid-December.
Marshall Islands Parliament Speaker Kenneth Kedi, Health Minister Bruce Bilimon, High Court Chief Justice Carl Ingram, president of the United Church of Christ Rev. Palukne Johnny, and the head of the Council of Irooj (Chiefs) paramount chief Kotak Loeak were the first five people to receive the vaccinations.
They were quickly followed by Niedenthal and public health doctors and nurses who are the top priority for the initial phase of the vaccination program.
“Health care workers and other frontliners and the elderly will also receive the vaccine first,” Niedenthal said.
Bilimon said the Covid pandemic showed the Ministry of Health what it had to do to improve health care in the country.
“It was the best time to prepare the hospital, to be ready for the future,” he said.
Niedenthal, representatives of the US and Taiwan, which have both supported Covid prevention work in the islands, and Bilimon emphasized the cooperation in the country and with donors that has helped to keep the country Covid-free.
Niedenthal acknowledged that they had dealt with three Covid positive cases as part of repatriation quarantine with no community transmission.
“This is a success,” he said. “We caught those cases as part of our Covid protocols.”
Deputy Health Secretary Mailynn Lang said it had now been 40 days since the last positive “border” case, demonstrating that the country was Covid-free. “Let’s keep it that way,” she said.
The Marshall Islands closed its border in early March when few other nations had taken this drastic measure.
When the country shut its borders, the World Health Organization said border closures were not effective and other countries questioned the move, said Niedenthal.
“But within two weeks, others followed us,” he said.
The border closure has been the key to keeping the Marshall Islands as one of only a handful of nations that have not had community transmission of Covid-19.
Niedenthal said another 6,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine are scheduled to be provided by the US government in January with more to follow until the adult population of this nation of 55,000 is vaccinated.
“In the not too near future anyone who wants to get vaccinated above the age of 18 will get the opportunity to be vaccinated,” said Niedenthal Tuesday.
“We are also in negotiations with Operation Warp Speed and the US CDC to prioritize our very vulnerable Marshall Islands citizens living in the US to get them vaccinated as soon as possible.” (Giff Johnson, Editor, Marshall Islands Journal / RNZ Pacific correspondent)