Update: No repatriation flight for Nov, but breakthrough on horizon
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — During a virtual meeting with the ASG coronavirus task force, members of the Tagata Tutufaatasi Alliance of American Samoa and US Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs Director Nikolao Pula, the ASG Health director Motusa Tuileama Nua said the government has no plans for a US repatriation flight in November.
But once the governor authorizes repatriation for American Samoa residents stranded in the US, the first flight will be a “test”, returning up to 80 residents.
Responding to Samoa News inquiries, task force chairman, Iulogologo Joseph Pereira explained that Pula was instrumental in orchestrating the Zoom Conference meeting last Friday, after the Alliance reached out to the OIA director for assistance.
“Director Pula relayed to me the conversations and meetings held with the Alliance. He suggested and raised the possibility of holding a Zoom Conference with the Alliance,” said Iulogologo, who sought direction from the governor relative to the suggestion by Pula and also briefed the governor “on my conversations” with Pula.
“The Governor supported wholeheartedly the suggestion recommended by Director Pula as the Governor deemed this an opportunity for us to hear from the Alliance who represent our stranded residents,” said Iulogologo, adding that with the governor’s approval, the Zoom Conference was planned between himself, Pula and Alliance president Eileen Tyrell.
Regarding the meeting, he said, it “went well and the general mood was focused on forging collaboration between the two groups to try and find solutions that will ultimately gravitate to the repatriation of our stranded residents.
“We were fortunate that Director Nikolao Pula joined the Zoom Conference for his guidance and his help at the federal level which is critical and invaluable going forward,” Iulogologo points out.
He explained that the primary purposes of the meeting were two-fold:
• Provide the platform for the Task Force to hear from our stranded residents and for the Task Force to report on our local efforts aiming for the eventual repatriation of our stranded residents; and
• To find ways where we can collaborate to find solutions to speed the process for the repatriation of our people.
Motusa and his medical team presented to the task force the “Revised Repatriation Plan, which will be vetted before we make our recommendation to the Governor,” he explained.
“We wish to acknowledge and thank Director Nikolao Pula’s leadership for orchestrating and facilitating this meeting. We also appreciate very much Eileen Tyrell’s leadership and her efforts to clearly articulate the needs of our people stranded in the States. We thank our stranded residents for their patience and sacrifices,” said Iulogologo, who was joined in the meeting by several task force members including the Attorney General, as well as other support staff.
Of note, the Alliance told Samoa News that it has been requesting a meeting with Iulogologo since July, to no avail — until Pula became involved. The Alliance says the aim or goal of the TTFAAS going in to this meeting, was to:
1. Get a commitment from the Task Force, for a Repatriation flight, and
2. Get Financial Assistance for Stranded Residents
According to the Alliance, during the Zoom meeting, the Task Force said, they’re looking into December, if they're given the green light from the Governor; and for Financial Assistance, the Task Force called out to Pula for assistance and he is working with them on it.
(An audio of the meeting was provided to Samoa News by some members of the Alliance.)
At the start of the nearly two-hour meeting in which Alliance members joined from other states, such as Washington state, Hawaii, and Utah, the task force chairman noted that the governor and ASG have not forgotten local residents stranded off island due to border closure.
Pula, who joined from Washington D.C., acknowledged the concerns of stranded residents over the closure of borders. Additionally, many have their opinions and views as to why the borders are not reopened so they can return home.
Tyrell, who is in Washington state, explained the purpose of the Alliance and was thankful for the opportunity “to be the voice of our Alliance” and share ideas and “pursue solutions to this global pandemic” with regards to repatriation.
“We know collaboration is crucial. We are now seeking greater cooperation and accommodation in the way forward,” said Tyrell, an American Samoa native, who is a graduate student, studying at the University of Washington and a member of the National Pacific Islander COVID-19 task force research work group.
Motusa told the meeting that DoH’s Dr. Cecilia Alailima was the medical escort at last week’s medical charter to Honolulu and joined the Zoom conference from Portland and will assist the department with preparation once a decision is made on the repatriation flight. Dr. Alailima also oversees DoH quarantine facilities and will work with health officials in Honolulu.
He explained that the “bottom-line” for DoH is protecting the 55,000-plus population of American Samoa, with 30% of them elders, and many of them with “multiple medical needs”. Furthermore, if there is an outbreak outside of the territory, the “advice” from DoH is to close borders and present reports to the governor and task force.
However, that does not stop DoH, LBJ Medical Center and the medical community from finding ways to repatriated local residents stranded off island, said the Health director.
Motusa then apologized to the Alliance and others who joined the meeting from the US, revealing that the government has made a decision that there will be no repatriation flight for either October or November.
He shared new information on DoH preparations. For example, if the governor authorizes a repatriation flight, DoH is prepared to carryout the first trial “test” flight with about 70 to 80 passengers returning home.
And the reason for the limited number of passengers on the first flight, he said, — firstly — the territory has only one hospital and the other reason is that DoH can only oversee two quarantine sites at one time.
Of the total passengers on the first flight, 54 will be quarantined at Fatuoaiga, and rest will be quarantined at the ASG quarantine facilities behind the DoH Tafuna Community Health Center.
If the first flight is a success, “we’ll look at increasing the number of passengers to between 160 to 180” for a second flight, in which passengers will be quarantined at Tradewinds Hotel — which has about 90-rooms — as the first site, and the second quarantine site is the ASG facilities — which have two separate buildings behind the Community Health Center.
The first building at the ASG facilities will quarantine elderly passengers, who are considered by DoH as needing care 24/7 and the other building will isolate passengers tested positive upon arrival.
He explained that passengers on the first trial flight will be quarantined for two-weeks (or 14-days) and on the third-week, DoH will conduct disinfection of these facilities, plus medical staff rest and recovery, as well as replenishing the medical supply to prepare for the next flight — based on the governor’s decision.
“That means, we will have a repatriation flight every four-weeks until all stranded residents are returned home,” he said.
DoH epidemiologist Dr. Aifili John Tufa, presented the four-phases of the latest DoH repatriation plan, with additional information.
“We worked very closely with other United States affiliated Pacific islands who have devised their repatriation plans as well,” he said. “And we’ve also contacted Samoa to look at how they’ve done their plan. We wanted to find out, their strategies so that we can use what’s working for them, and maybe come up with other things… specific to us.”
He also said that DoH worked together with the Pacific Islands Health Officers Association (PIHOA).
To the stranded residents, Dr. Tufa said “we have not forgotten you and we’ve been working on a repatriation plan. In past months I have been contacted by various people with the Alliance and those hoping to return home.”
He gave an “outline of the repatriation plan, that we are comfortable with.” He explained that DoH wants to make sure there are medical personnel in Honolulu to assist when people are put in quarantine before leaving for American Samoa and contacts have been made with hotels as quarantine sites in Hawaii.
Phase one of the repatriation plan is the online registration, through a website already completed and will go online for registration once the decision is made for the flight. Stranded residents need to register on this DoH portal. He said DoH will also seek additional information from the passenger to see if the person “is fit for travel”.
The list of those who register will then go to the Attorney General for the vetting process and from there, DoH will create a shorter list for those who will travel on the first flight, the second flight and subsequent flights.
Phase two is 10-day quarantine in Hawaii, and this came up after “we spoke to a lot of our colleagues” with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the Hawaii Health Department, according to Dr. Tufa.
“We all agreed that in order for us to really minimize the chance of the virus coming here, 10-day quarantine at the port before entry to our island, is probably the best way to minimize” the COVID-19 entering the territory, he said.
Stranded residents on the short-list will be informed via email that they have been approved to be repatriated and the date they will enter the 10-day quarantine.
Dr. Tufa explained the process during the 10-day quarantine: on day one, everyone is tested to make sure that all travelers entering quarantine are COVID-19 negative. And a second test within 7 days of quarantine.
He said DoH is working with two companies in Hawaii for this plan and one of them is Caregivers Credential of Hawaii, the group that will help take daily temperatures and checking symptoms of travelers. And if there’s any emergency, that might arise during quarantine, this group will be handling it, dealing with specific hospitals and ambulances.
Phase three is arrival in American Samoa and goes through 14-day quarantine. “The 10-day quarantine in Hawaii, we’re really minimizing chance of the virus coming here but its not 100% — maybe its about 95%-96%. The smaller risk, 4% will take care during the 14-day quarantine,” he explained.
He also said screening will be carried out at the airport upon arrival before passengers are escorted to the quarantine sites. After five to 7 days of being in quarantine, there will be another round of virus testing. And testing again on day 12 and 14 - before being discharged.
During registration, the traveler must also complete the Health Declaration Form, which Dr. Tufa said the traveler must also be specific with any other health issues and needs, as this information is needed by DoH during the 14-day quarantine.
For example, if the traveler is a diabetic patient, on a special diet, any allergies, and if person needs a wheel chair.
Phase four, is staff and community surveillance, as well as resting period for staff, who will also be tested for the virus.
Dr. Tufa said the repatriation “plan is set and we’re waiting for the approval” from the governor.
Samoa News will report in future edition on the rest of the issues from the conference meeting.