Important developments on the Marshallese repatriation program include a shortening of the quarantine time and increased numbers of people returning.
At last Thursday’s Cabinet meeting, RMI leaders endorsed a Ministry of Health and Human Services/National Disaster Committee recommendation to reduce the quarantine time at Kwajalein from three to two weeks. Coupled with the quarantine in Honolulu prior to leaving Hawaii, group four — which was released Wednesday this week — and future groups will be subject to four weeks of quarantine.
Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal said the RMI has learned from managing the repatriation program since last June and feels comfortable to reduce the quarantine period, which is still one of the most stringent screening systems used anywhere in the world.
“Counting both Arrak and Kwajalein, we’ve repatriated over 1,000 people,” Niedenthal said this week. “Originally it was 21 days at Kwajalein because the Army only wanted to do a one-week quarantine in Hawaii (for its returning workers).” But, he added, that changed to two weeks in Hawaii, the same as for the Marshall Islands government-sponsored groups that are returning.
Niedenthal said it is not only four weeks of quarantine, each person has a total of five Covid shots during that period. After some initial hiccups with the first repatriation group last October, the ministry rejiggered the testing schedule that it now feels can capture any possible Covid case while people are still in quarantine.
In Hawaii, the Marshallese being repatriated get one Covid test before they enter quarantine, their second two days in, and a third one within 72 hours of departing for RMI. After arriving at Kwajalein, they are again tested on day seven and on day 14, prior to being released. On top of this, the ministry is communicating with Hawaii health authorities to arrange a system for providing Covid vaccines to Marshallese prior to them leaving Hawaii for Kwajalein.
“Safety is always the main concern,” said Niedenthal. “We’re confident the four weeks and testing system is safe.”
Since the first repatriation group of 27 last October, the numbers have steadily grown. The group released this week is 52.
Group five, which went into quarantine in Honolulu this week in preparation for flying to Kwajalein in two weeks, numbers 77. According to the Office of the Chief Secretary, the next group includes 76 Marshallese and one diplomat.
Army Col. Jeremy Bartel approved the expanded numbers for group five and has organized quarantine accommodations for this larger number. Whether Kwajalein can continue to accommodate Marshallese repatriation groups in the 70s or 80s isn’t known.