President Surangel Whipps Jr. is optimistic that the travel bubble between Taiwan and Palau will resume even as Taipei raised COVID-19 alert levels amid a rise in coronavirus infection yesterday.

Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) on May 20 reported 286 local COVID-19 infections and one death, but for the president, this does not mean that the travel bubble or sterile corridor will be shut down. 

“When they move up to low risk again, then we go back to travel,  sterile corridor. process,” Whipps told reporters in a press conference Wednesday.

China Airlines has stopped flights to Palau until the middle of June but the president said at some point the air service will restart again and as long as Palau continues with its strict COVID-19 protocols, it can minimize the risk of COVID-19 infections. 

“We knew that going into it. We don’t know what’s gonna happen with COVID tomorrow, we know that there will be a possibility that things will be shut down, which now we see is shut down. And we continue to evaluate and most importantly, our policy has always been, we open with care. So as the Director, made it very clear we have directives in place that are very clear. When a country moves from low risk to high risk, then we go to quarantine,” he said.

But in a COVID world, Whipps said that one day, the virus can creep into the country’s shores, but due to the high vaccination rate in Palau, he is hopeful that the nation will be protected. 

“But the good news is that we are getting vaccinated, we’re reaching the level of comfort. I mean, once we get our kids vaccinated, we would be at 80% of the total population vaccinated. So I think we’re getting there.”

According to the Ministry of Health as of 5 pm of May 19, there are 11,175 fully vaccinated individuals or 84 percent of the adult population, but the weekend, the vaccinated numbers will increase as more people complete the second doses.

The new minister of  Human Resource, Culture, Tourism, and Development or the “super ministry, ” Ngirai Tmetuchl echoed President Whipps optimism for the travel bubble.

He said the travel bubble will go on amid the surging COVID cases in Taiwan, 

“But that doesn’t change the bubble. The bubble is ongoing. We’re monitoring it for the next couple of weeks. To see how the community’s transmission, it looks like it’s coming down …And we have ongoing discussions about how to deal with it,” he said. 

Tmetuchl said the safety of the country is a priority, but it is open to looking into creating travel bubbles with other nations aside from Taiwan in the future. 

He added the new directive, effective by May 22,  requires that travel coming into Palau are fully vaccinated. 

“If you notice, our guidelines are actually a lot more strict than what they require. So we’re very cautious. We’re still, we don’t want to do anything that’s going to be detrimental to the Palauan community. But then again, we have to follow what science is saying. And so right now, if you look at this directive, as I said,  if you are vaccinated, you have a different protocol coming into Palau if you are not vaccinated,” he added.

Some people are still very much happy to keep borders open to travelers from Taiwan as long as they are vaccinated and tested negative for COVID-19.

“I am cautiously happy for the borders to stay open for people to come from Taiwan as long as they are vaccinated and test negative. It will also be good for Palau  to be close to herd immunity and have almost 70 to 80 percent vaccinated in Palau,” Lorraine Rivera said, 

She said as long as Palau can keep the community safe and continue to impose its protocols and listen to the science and its health officials, keeping the border open is welcome. 

She is also pinning her hopes on the vaccination program as a way to safely open. 

But the travel bubble since it was launched on April 1 only attracted at least 300 tourists in Palau. 

Tmetuchl said he is pinning hopes to a ramped-up marketing of the country as a COVID-free destination to attract more travelers.

“What we’ve learned from Taiwan is that the Taiwanese were actually wanting to come to Palau. But they were not well informed about Palau’s COVID-free status. So we needed to ramp up our marketing and educate the Taiwanese public .. we have the capability to deal with one COVID if it were to enter, as you know, we are now at 81%, I believe, adult population vaccinated. So I believe it’s quite safe,” he said.

Former health minister Emais Roberts, who is also a physician,  said science shows that  COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing severe COVID-19, but there is a  small percentage chance that a vaccinated person can still get COVID-19.

 “There is a case of two doctors in Guam who had been vaccinated already. They visited India and returned to Guam and started working and then tested positive after having mild symptoms,” he said.

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