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DoH: Costs of coronavirus quarantine in American Samoa could run into the millions

The parking lot renovation at the Veterans Affairs Memorial Center building

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — The Dept. of Health estimates that about 80% to 90% of passengers — from and transiting through US states affected with the coronavirus — will require 14-day quarantine in America Samoa, which means DoH needs more space and beds to effectively carry out the quarantine process.

Health director Motusa Tuileama Nua made the comment during the cabinet briefing update on the COVID-19 late Sunday afternoon at the Emergency Operation Centers where it was announced travelers — including all American Samoa residents — from coronavirus affected US states will not be required to say in Hawaii for 14-days. (See yesterday’s edition on revised travel advisory.)

Motusa explained that Hawaiian Airlines brings into the territory an average of about 250 to 260 passengers per flight night on Mondays and Thursdays and half of the passenger load are travelers from coronavirus affected states, where “most of those states have [large] Samoan communities” — such as Washington state and California.

“And that means about 110 or 120 [passengers per flight] will need to be quarantined by Public Health or home quarantined in American Samoa,” he said and noted that “if that’s the case, Public Health will have to find $3 million for every flight to house those people here for 14-days.”

“That’s a big challenge” for DoH, which doesn’t have that kind of money, he said, and noted that if passengers are required to stay 14-days in Hawai’i, “it costs about $3,000 or more — for lodging and meals —  per family.”

Motusa didn’t say how he came up with the estimate for DoH costs or how he made the calculation for Hawai’i, which has a very high cost of living.

Responding to a question from a cabinet member about Hawaiian Airlines denying boarding in Honolulu due to the coronavirus, Motusa said the airline, before its flight departure, or before boarding, will announce that travelers from and transiting from COVID-19 affected states  “are subject to being quarantined in American Samoa” once they go through the health surveillance screening at the Pago Pago International Airport.

“With that being said, nobody will stop anybody from coming because it’s not part of any executive order from American Samoa, or from the state of Hawaii,” he said. “People will do what they do.”

“But still Public Health in American Samoa must beef up the surveillance, meaning that will force Public Health to quarantine 80% to 90% of those people coming in,” he said and gave an update of what DoH is doing to address a shortage of space and beds to quarantine travelers for 14-days because the Leone Health Clinic, designated as the quarantine facility, has only 16 beds.

Last month, Lt. Gov. Lemau Palepoi Sialega Mauga designated the Veterans Affairs Memorial building at the Tafuna Industrial Park as the second quarantine facility and ordered upgrades to be done.

At the Sunday briefing, Motusa said the VA center is not yet ready and the crew is working on the showers, which will most likely be completed this Friday or next week Monday. Once that’s done, DOH will have up to 40-new Army cot spaces.

“So we’re looking at any where between 50 to 60 spaces after that is done at the VA building. Still, that’s only about 60% of [travelers] coming in from the affected states,” he said, adding that this “puts the burden back on Public Health, trying to protect the public” and also make sure there are no patients sent to LBJ Medical Center.

The third facility ASG is working on as a quarantine center, is a building constructed behind the Tafuna Community Health Center. No information was provided on the status of this planned facility.

If there is a spike in the number of travelers requiring 14-day quarantine while the other two facilities are not ready, Motusa said DoH will look at passengers coming from states with recorded deaths and confirm cases to make the determination for “home quarantine... until such time we have enough space and Public Health will have to beef up surveillance outside of the homes.”

“Once we have a confirmed case and those people are being quarantined, then Public Safety will have to play a role there, to make sure folks are not walking around,” he said.

According to the new revised DoH advisory on Monday, and in accordance with US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, US passport holders and returning residents traveling from and transiting through any of the US states with the virus, will be subject to all public health screening procedures and may be medically quarantined or home quarantined.

All those who are home quarantined are restricted from leaving their homes until cleared by a public health physician.

Meanwhile, the ASG Veterans Affairs Office has been relocated to the Governor’s Office.