COVID-19 – the Pacific response: 3 June

Papua New Guinea is reporting higher than expected vaccination numbers, whilst Fiji has announced it will be opening temporary hospitals to deal with the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, Hugh McClure writes.

The COVID-19 situation in Fiji has escalated considerably this fortnight. 264 cases have been recorded in the past 14 days, bringing the country’s total number of cases detected since the start of the pandemic to 438. The highly-transmissible variant of COVID-19, first detected in India, has been identified in Fiji.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, the identification of new cases detected in Papua New Guinea (PNG) has slowed this fortnight, with 15,910 cases and 162 deaths recorded to-date. 18,875 cases have been recorded in French Polynesia, 7,935 in Guam, 454 in Wallis and Futuna, 183 in Northern Mariana Islands, 128 in New Caledonia, 20 in Solomon Islands, four in Marshall Islands, three in Vanuatu, and one in Samoa.

There are widespread reports that Palau, which has been COVID-19 free up-to-now, has recorded its first case of COVID-19 this fortnight. A fully vaccinated individual who arrived from Guam on 9 May reportedly tested positive on day 21 of quarantine and is in isolation, along with all close contacts. The World Health Organization (WHO) is yet to officially recognise the case.

Here is a snapshot of policy responses to COVID-19 in the Pacific region, correct as of 12pm AEST, 2 June 2021.

The fortnight in review

In response to the rapidly increasing case numbers in Fiji, the Health Ministry has established additional field hospitals and quarantine and isolation centres. Secretary of the Health Ministry Dr James Fong said the government may temporarily take over assets for this purpose.

The Nadi Hospital and two wings of the Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva are in lockdown following the detection of COVID-19 cases in the facility. Widespread testing and contact tracing is underway, with some services to be provided elsewhere. Four screening and isolation zones have been established within the Nadi containment area.

Some restrictions have eased in Fiji this fortnight, with high risk businesses, such as hairdressers, now allowed to re-open in Labasa. The Lami, Suva, and Nausori containment areas have been transformed into one large containment zone.

Some families have said that food rations promised to those in lockdown areas have not arrived, placing them under severe food shortages. A payment of $31.79 will be provided for unemployed people on Viti Levu, while the Fiji National Provident Fund will extend Phase 2 and 3 of benefits for a further month.

Fiji officials reported that more than 150,000 vaccines have been delivered to-date, with 28 per cent of the target population having received their first dose. 32 per cent of the target population in Western Division and Central Division have received their first dose, while 12 per cent and 10 per cent of people in the Northern and Easter divisions respectively have received their first dose, reflecting the heightened concern on Viti Levu. Prime Minister Bainimarama said that vaccination is critical to reopening the country’s economy.

COVID-19 vaccinations have arrived in Vanuatu, Kiribati, and Niue this fortnight. Vanuatu and Kiribati have each received 24,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access facility, with inoculations slated to commence on 2 June in Vanuatu. South Tarawa has been identified as a priority vaccination zone in Kiribati due to the high population density.

Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown stated that more than 7,000 people in Rarotonga have received their first vaccination, putting the rollout ahead of schedule. The rollout has now extended to Niue, where there are hopes that a successful vaccine rollout could enable a travel bubble with New Zealand. In preparation, a $940,000 package has been announced for the only resort in Niue, Matavai, to upgrade its facilities as the territory prepares for the return of tourists. Matavai is Niue’s largest private sector employer and this support comes as part of a larger assistance package for Niue.

Elsewhere in the region, 42,063 vaccine doses have been administered in American Samoa, 43,898 in the Federated States of Micronesia, 156,094 in Guam, 29,699 in Marshall Islands, 46,935 in the Northern Mariana Islands, and 86,639 in New Caledonia.

7,392 doses have been administered in Nauru, 95,556 in French Polynesia, 25,490 in Palau, 28,433 in Samoa, 16,581 in Solomon Islands, 25,970 in Tonga, 2,400 in Tuvalu, and 8,283 in Wallis and Futuna.

Pandemic Controller David Manning said that 30,000 people in PNG have now received their first dose of AstraZeneca – higher than the statistics reported by the WHO. Health workers are again being urged to get the vaccine, after 28 health workers tested positive on 27 May alone.

1,533 PNG health workers have tested positive to COVID-19 in the past three months, 10 per cent of the country’s total confirmed cases. Incentives are increasingly being used to boost vaccine rates in PNG. Medical students at the University of PNG have been told that they would not be allowed to complete hospital placements without receiving a vaccine, while the Ok Tedi mine site has launched a company-wide vaccine rollout for its workers.

With new daily infections declining, health authorities in PNG are urging people to remain vigilant, predicting that the country will face a third wave of the virus between July and September 2021. The Southern Highlands and Eastern Highlands provinces have been identified as new frontiers in PNG’s war against COVID-19, with infections in the two provinces continuing to mount. 111,917 tests have been conducted to-date in PNG.

Vanuatu’s opposition has filed a no confidence motion against the Loughman Government, accusing it of excessive spending during a national crisis.

Tonga has received aid from New Zealand for the construction of a central pharmacy warehouse to service the country. The warehouse has been trumpeted as a way to assist COVID-19 preparedness and response as well as assist the vaccine rollout drive.

The Kiribati Government has suspended its repatriation program to deal with cases of COVID-19 identified onboard a fishing carrier which is anchored off the country’s capital, Tarawa. Two fishermen – one an i-Kiribati man – tested positive for COVID-19 and are being quarantined onboard the ship.

Australia has provided funding to the Foundation for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development (FRIEND)’s COVID-19 response in Fiji, which provides support for people with a disability, including the provision of food rations, and for the unemployed through an innovation fund.

Hugh McClure

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