Covid at Kwajalein Army base sparks Majuro worry, protocol changes

Kwajalein Atoll
An aerial view of the southern portion of Kwajalein Atoll missile military base in the Marshall Islands. Image: Giff Johnson/MIJ

By Giff Johnson, Editor, Marshall Islands Journal and RNZ Pacific correspondent

Despite increasing calls this week from community and political leaders to keep the Marshall Islands borders closed, the first group of Marshall Islanders from covid-19-infected countries were repatriated Saturday to begin a 21-day quarantine at the US Army base on Kwajalein Atoll.

This follows the group of 27 islanders – who flew from Hawai’i to the US Army base Saturday on a scheduled United Airlines flight – completing a 14-day quarantine in a Honolulu hotel with multiple negative covid-19 tests.

The group includes Marshallese who were in other nations with covid in addition to the United States.

Confirmation earlier in the week of two positive covid “border” cases at the Kwajalein missile range put residents and political leaders in the Marshall Islands on edge.

Both Americans who tested positive, a 35-year-old female and a 46-year-old male, are in managed quarantine at the Army base.

Ten months into the covid-19 pandemic, these two cases end the Marshall Islands tenure as one of a handful of nations with no covid cases.

While the Marshall Islands brought in its first repatriation group in spite of the first covid cases at Kwajalein, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) moved quickly to cancel a planned repatriation from Majuro.

Within 24 hours of the Marshalls announcing the two positive border cases at Kwajalein, the FSM government cancelled repatriation of Micronesians living in Majuro that had been scheduled for Friday using a chartered Air Marshall Islands flight.

MPs upset over ‘short’ quarantine period for US army
The covid-positive status of the two American base sparked repeated and sometimes heated questioning of the government’s National Disaster Committee by members of Parliament during a six-hour Committee of the Whole meeting on Friday.

MPs were angered that the Army was allowed to use a quarantine period in Hawai’i limited to five-to-seven days prior to departure to the base in the Marshall Islands, while the Marshall Islands has imposed a 14-day quarantine on islanders it has started to repatriate.

“If they followed our protocol of 14 days, these covid cases would have been identified in Hawai’i,” said MP Jack Ading, who represents islanders who live at the former US nuclear weapons test site at Enewetak Atoll.

Ading said the group of 16 American base workers arrived this past Tuesday at Kwajalein after only seven days in Hawaii, and within a day, the positive diagnosis was confirmed.

“If it was 14 days, it wouldn’t have happened here,” he said.

Chief Secretary Kino Kabua, who heads the government’s National Disaster Committee, said Army Commander Col. Jeremy Bartel had already informed her that he was adopting the 14-day quarantine period in Hawaii following the Covid development at Kwajalein.

The Army began repatriating its workers June 9 and has continued weekly to bring in an average of 15 workers.

The first group of Marshallese to be repatriated
The first group of Marshallese to be repatriated through the US Army base on Kwajalein Atoll in May were followed by 77 base workers since June 9. Image: Hilary Hosia/MIJ

US cases skyrocketed
In the past month, the number of covid cases in the US has skyrocketed to record levels, with one million new cases in the past 14 days.

The government needs to “tell the Army to stop bringing in workers and return the two positive people to the US,” said Ebon Atoll Mayor Marie Milne.

“Almost everyone is saying ‘delay’ (repatriation) but (the first Marshall Islands group) still went ahead Saturday.”

But, Milne added, “everything we say to the National Disaster Committee is falling on deaf ears.

They are going full speed ahead with what they want to do. People are frustrated and angry about this.”

The 27 Marshallese arrived Saturday and immediately started a 21-day quarantine at the Kwaj Lodge, a small hotel normally used by the Army for short-term visitors to the base but which has been turned over for repatriation quarantine use by the Marshall Islands government.

The 27 are the first of 300 people, mostly in Hawaii, the government hopes to repatriate over time.

Future repatriation pending
But Health Minister Bruce Bilimon said on Saturday that future repatriation of Marshallese stranded by the covid border closure in March depends on the success of this first group.

“We are focusing on this first group now to make sure it works,” he said.

As Friday’s parliament session focused on the covid situation, Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal told legislators:

“This isn’t a failure, it’s actually a success. We captured the case in quarantine, not in public. The system worked.”

“From early this year, I said keep our borders closed and only allow essential workers in,” said Speaker Kenneth Kedi. “Otherwise, we will have no control. If big countries can’t stop it, we won’t be able to either.

“To some extent it is a failure because we allowed Kwajalein (the Army) to do what it wanted, to open it to repatriation.

Marshallese are following a 14-day quarantine in Hawai’i, and the Americans are following five-to-seven.”

Request sent to US Embassy
Attorney-General Richard Hickson told parliamentarians Friday that a request was sent to the US Embassy requesting the two workers who tested positive be returned to the US.

They are currently in managed quarantine at the missile test range, along with three “persons under investigation” who are family members of the two positive Americans and were in close contact with them in Hawai’i and on the flight to Kwajalein.

“I’m disappointed that the Army and the US government would allow this to happen,” said Milne.

“We look to them to protect us. They weren’t careful (managing repatriation of workers) and didn’t want to do a 14-day quarantine in Hawai’i.”

National Disaster Committee members told parliamentarians that when repatriation rules were being negotiated with the Army in May, US authorities objected to a 14-day quarantine period in Hawai’i sought by the Marshall Islands saying it was difficult to manage and expensive.

Ultimately, the Army agreed to a compromise of quarantine for seven days in Hawai’i and 21 days at Kwajalein.

Bilimon said this coming Tuesday’s regular weekly Army worker repatriation group will be deferred until the new quarantine procedures are put in place in Hawai’i.

This article is republished by the Pacific Media Centre under a partnership agreement with RNZ.

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  1. Ask the US government how the Marshallese got polio. And why the displaced indigenous on Ebeye were initially denied the Salk vaccine. Once again, the US, through its careless “peacekeepers”, brings sadness to the islands. And once again, the Kabua family is complicit and in the pocket of Uncle Sam.

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