Close call on Covid

US Army Garrison, Kwajalein Atoll Commander Col. Jeremy Bartel (top left) hosted the Nitijela Health, Education and Social Affairs Committee for a tour of Covid-19 quarantine and isolation facilities on Kwajalein earlier this month. At the table, facing Bartel are, from top: Member of Parliament (MP) Tony Aisaia of Namu, Chairman MP Kalani Kaneko, Vice Speaker Peterson Jibas, MP Joe Bejang of Lib, Foreign Affairs representative Junior Aini, and Education Minister Kitlang Kabua. Photo: Hilary Hosia.

GIFF JOHNSON

The US Army Garrison, Kwajalein Atoll had its first long-distance brush with coronavirus when one of the 15 base workers scheduled to return this week tested positive for Covid-19 in Honolulu prior to departing for Kwajalein.

Contract tracing by Army authorities identified three others in the intending repatriation group to have had contact with with individual who was Covid-19. As a result, only 11 of the 15 base workers scheduled to arrive Tuesday this week to begin a 21-day quarantine at the base actually came to Kwajalein on a military transport flight.

This information was confirmed to the Journal Tuesday this week by Health Minister Bruce Bilimon, who added the Cabinet held a special meeting Monday afternoon to review information on the situation provided by US authorities.

Monday’s special Cabinet meeting generated discussion about possible additional requirements for USAG-KA workers being repatriated. “We are looking at additional measures,” Bilimon said. “My medical people are looking at new protocols.”

This was leading up to a US-RMI meeting Wednesday this week to address the ongoing repatriation program for USAG-KA.

Bilimon said he didn’t know the status of the three individuals in Honolulu who had been exposed to the one person in the group who had tested Covid-19 positive. Because they had close contact with the positive individual, they were not allowed to board the flight to Kwajalein this week.

Beginning June 9 and continuing through Tuesday this week, seven groups of USAG-KA workers have come into Kwajalein on weekly military flights. They are all tested for Covid-19 in Honolulu prior to departure, tested on arrival at USAG-KA before they go into a 21-day quarantine at the base with additional tests, including a final Covid-19 test on day 21 prior to release.

A total of 84 USAG-KA workers were scheduled to arrive in the seven groups since June 9 and 77 actually arrived, according to Ministry of Health and Human Services statistics. The difference in the actual arrival number reflects three who did not come in as scheduled in the first and fourth groups, and the four who were dropped this week because of Covid-19 exposure.

In addition to American base workers repatriating, the first Marshallese base worker — a resident and worker at Roi-Namur Island — arrived in last week’s group.

Bilimon said the Army had a “robust testing program in place and the quarantine in Kwajalein is good.”

The health minister added that the RMI needs to be “cautious and vigilant” about preventing Covid-19 getting into the RMI.

In other Covid-19 news:
• The RMI government is chartering the AMI Dash-8 to bring home nine Marshallese stuck in Kosrae because of the Covid-19 travel ban. The special flight is scheduled for July 27. All nine Marshallese to be repatriated are residents of Ebeye. There have been no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Kosrae or any of the other Federated States of Micronesia states.

• Many businesses in the Marshall Islands have applied for the RMI government’s Covid-19 pandemic relief aid. Reginald White, chairman of the National Disaster Committee’s Economic Impact Assessment ad hoc Committee, said the government has earmarked $6 million provided by the Asian Development Bank for business relief aid. As of last week, “over 50 businesses have applied for relief assistance,” he said. “20 have completed their applications and returned them for review.” Earlier this month, the first two — RRE and AKIA Cafe — received their first relief checks.

• The FSM government reported that Kosrae state is not yet ready to re-open its border to let FSM citizens return. The announcement from the FSM President’s Office followed a three-day series of Covid-19 prevention and response exercises held in Kosrae July 13-15. Citizens only interested in knowing when Kosrae state is ready to open are advised that the simulation exercises demonstrated sufficient gaps that no date can yet be identified. “In our first day of meetings,” said the Kosrae Governor Carson Sigrah in the debriefing on July 17, “I mentioned that we were working on a timeline to start thinking about opening our borders to accept our stranded citizens. The timeline was (this) week’s flights on Wednesday and Thursday. Evidently, I think we cannot meet that timeline according to the assessment that’s been done.”

• Despite growing tension and confusion within the Marshallese community on Kwajalein and Majuro following the arrival of USAG-KA worker Joe Rubon as part of the ongoing US Army Garrison, Kwajalein Atoll repatriation program, Kwajalein Mayor Hirata Kabua remains vigilant in supporting USAG-KA, adding people shouldn’t discriminate against Joe because of his Marshallese ethnicity. “Although he is Marshallese, it is clear that he is ‘mission essential,’ and if he went through the same process as those in the repatriation process, then so be it,” Kabua told the Journal. “The repatriation process is safe and controlled. Let that be the end of it.”

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