Three US Army personnel test positive for covid at Marshall Islands border

Kwajalein Atoll military base
An aerial view of the US Army's Reagan test site headquarters on Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands. Image: RNZ/Giff Johnson/Marshall Islands Journal

By Giff Johnson, RNZ Pacific correspondent in Majuro

The US Army ignored agreed-to covid prevention rules for entry into the Marshall Islands this week and the result was the first border cases of covid in the Marshall Islands in more than a year.

Three US Army personnel tested positive for covid soon after arrival at the US Army Garrison — Kwajalein Atoll (USAG-KA) Tuesday while starting a two-week quarantine period for entry into the country.

Despite record-breaking numbers of covid cases in Hawai’i and the US mainland over the past several weeks, driven largely by the omicron variant, the Army brought in the largest group ever to come to Kwajalein in the weekly US Army repatriation groups since it started the process in June 2020.

The group arrived Tuesday this week following a one-week quarantine in Hawai’i to undergo an additional two weeks of quarantine at the Kwajalein base.

Of the 37 base workers and their families now in quarantine, three tested positive for covid. On Wednesday, Army authorities informed Marshall Islands officials of the positive cases in this group.

These are known as “border cases”.

The Marshall Islands is one of the few countries globally that has never had community transmission of covid in the two years since the virus appeared.

‘Clearly broke the protocols’
The 37 people in this weekly Army group were allowed to board the military flight to Kwajalein from Honolulu without waiting for the results from a covid test, “which clearly broke the protocols jointly agreed to by National Disaster Committee (NDC) and USAG-KA,” said Chief Secretary Kino Kabua, who chairs the Marshall Islands National Disaster Committee.

A negative covid test is required for anyone to fly from Honolulu to the Marshall Islands.

A public statement issued by the Office of the Chief Secretary Wednesday said all three positive cases are showing no symptoms and are in quarantine and isolated from the community at Kwajalein.

There were no border cases in either Kwajalein or Majuro for 14 months preceding this week’s development. This is primarily because a quarantine period in Hawai’i — two weeks for unvaccinated individuals, one week if vaccinated — coupled with three covid tests prior to departure to the Marshall Islands has ensured no border cases in the Marshall Islands for an extended period.

Last week’s Army group saw one person bumped off the flight when they tested positive for covid prior to departure from Honolulu. But this protocol was not followed this week.

“NDC had discussions with the colonel on Wednesday who stated it was a procedural error on their part,” said Kabua.

“He conveyed it was unacceptable that the situation occurred and that he had already brought his entire team to rectify the problem, including pulling back the authority to authorise the flights to his level.”

Monitoring of test results
Kabua added: “We reiterated the importance of adhering to the joint protocols and discussed additional measures to enhance collaboration at the technical-working level, especially the monitoring of test results coming out from Honolulu.”

Prior to the discovery of the three border cases, the Ministry of Health earlier this week issued a call to temporarily halt all repatriation for one month in light of the explosion of covid cases in Hawai’i, the US mainland and the world during the past month.

Hawai’i has been reporting between 1500 and 3000 new covid cases daily over the past several weeks after having only 57 cases as recently as December 7. The United States set a new record with more than 500,000 cases a day earlier this week.

The recommendation to “pause” repatriation was the lead point in a “Ministry of Health Emergency Covid-19 Resolution” issued January 3.

There is currently one Marshall Islands repatriation group tentatively scheduled for January and the Army brings in groups of its workers weekly.

The ministry recommended using a one-month pause on repatriation groups to enhance health and community preparation for the possible introduction of covid-19 omicron into the community, including vaccination, boosters and updating National Emergency Operations Centre plans.

The ministry also called on the government to “mandate covid-19 vaccination for healthcare workers, front-liners, civil servants and school aged children, including booster doses”.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ. Giff Johnson is editor of the Marshall Islands Journal.

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