COVID-19 is here to stay. Palau has to adapt to the new normal. It is too late to turn back the clock to COVID-free status.
Palau is experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak after nearly 2 years of being COVID-free. Based on the characteristics and the speed of the spread, US CDC doctors in town as well as the local doctors say that the COVID-19 present in Palau is most likely the Omicron variant.
As of yesterday, the Ministry of Health and Human Services (MHHS) reported 30 new cases, bringing the total of active cases to 130. It reported that 498 were under quarantine, 19 have recovered and there have been no hospitalizations due to COVID.
It was also reported at yesterday’s national leadership meeting that hospital isolation sites are filled up and that new positive cases are instructed to quarantine at home.
As a result of the rapid increase in the number of cases, all schools have been closed to “flatten” the curve or reduce the number of transmissions.
The national hospital is activating procedures to minimize contacts, including shutting down visitations of patients and limiting non-essential clinical services.
A national mandate has been issued requiring masks to be worn in indoor spaces or outside where 20 or more people are gathered.
Fear of contracting COVID despite vaccinations is still expressed by community members, particularly concerned with those who are vulnerable due to pre-existing conditions and children below 5 years of age who are not eligible for vaccination.
Government and health practitioners plead for calm, assuring the public to be confident about the vaccines, but to practice health safety measures such as wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and washing hands often.
The government asks the public to rely on science-based information and decisions issued by the MHHS.
Active vaccination is urged and as of yesterday, 16,916 have been fully vaccinated. This includes 15,023 adults, 1,293 adolescents, and 600 pediatric (children ages 5 to 11). 7,769 of 18-year-olds and above have received 3rd doses and booster shots.
Response to vaccination is high–96% are fully vaccinated, with more people getting in line to get their children vaccinated or receive their booster shots.
An estimated 1,700 are not vaccinated, including infants ages 0 to 4 and others who for medical or personal reasons are not getting vaccinations.
All schools have closed down to minimize transmission, but learning continues online, as well as through other methods practiced and tested in 2020 when the threat of COVID was first declared.
All face-to-face learning is closed for a week but may extend depending on the situation.
Community-wide testing is expected to happen soon once the requested test kits arrive.
Incoming flights continue under the new directive that reinstated testing at the airport and testing on Day 4. As of Sunday, 112 incoming passengers were tested at the airport and all had negative results. They are released on Restriction of Movement (ROM) until they receive their Day 4 test results.
There has been no response to the recommendations to close down borders temporarily while Palau gets the outbreak under control. Medical experts on the island say that the COVID-19 is already in the community and that closing the borders may have no effect on the spread of this Omicron variant. They say that based on what is seen around the world, the spread will continue until it reaches a peak, after 3 to 4 weeks, before it starts to go down.
WHAT TO DO
The question more often asked is, what should we do then? What is the government doing?
In the last few days, meetings, press conferences, daily radio, and TV briefings have been held to update the public and also to give answers; however, the answers for many have not been satisfactory.
The answer to the question of what we can do to stop this is answered simply by MHHS: get vaccinated, wear a mask, social distance, wash hands and avoid crowded places. In addition, temporarily close school, mandate mask-wearing at all indoor places, and work together to ensure that these measures are implemented.
The answer seems too simple. What about closing borders? What about a lockdown until we get rid of COVID? What about requiring mandatory quarantine for incoming passengers?
The answer to the above questions is that it is too late. The omicron variant is here now. It is “endemic”, meaning it is here to stay. It will not disappear, and Palau can not go back to the way it was before August 2021. It will have to learn to live with COVID and possibly adapt to future strains when they come.
It is still early in this Omicron saga and the government may activate or deactivate the phases of the COVID Mitigation guidance or add on to it according to MHHS Minister Uherbelau, depending on the developing situation.
Eventually, Palau will need to truly adapt to a new normal, since as warned by experts, there may be other variants of COVID coming in the future. So, mask-wearing, hand washing, social distancing, and less crowded places are going to become the norm. Schools may evolve to half face-to-face and half online just to ready Palau for the next wave or next variant.
The solution to mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is said to be everyone’s responsibility and not just the government.