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Gov Lolo writes to Interior Secretary to justify CARES Act spending

Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga
Some federal agencies questioning merits and legitimacy of his decisions, he says

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga has informed US Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt some federal agencies are questioning the “merits and legitimacy” of his decision to allocate money to the Legislature and villages from American Samoa’s COVID-19 funds issued from the US Treasury Department.

The governor also noted complaints and lawsuits by local residents over current COVID-19 restrictions to protect American Samoa, which remains the only US jurisdiction, without a confirmed case.

The more than $35 million from US Treasury as well as funding allocations from specific federal departments including the DOI’s Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) are made possible through provisions under the Coronavirus Ad, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

In a July 20th letter to Bernhardt, the governor expressed American Samoa’s appreciation for the significant financial support made through the CARES Act, which, Lolo says has “empowered us to effectively combat the deadly COVID-19 virus.”

Lolo, who noted that American Samoa remains coronavirus free, points out that periodic preliminary reports have been transmitted to OIA on what is being done to protect the territory from being “ravaged” by the virus.

He explained the formulation of the territory’s Containment and Protection Coronavirus Strategy that was driven by the “existing situational environment inclusive of our geographical remoteness” which poses logistical challenges in getting supplies or accessing medical services with Hawaii being the nearest US medical facility, but accessed only by very limited air service.

The governor shared information on the territory’s healthcare infrastructure, which comprises 132 beds inclusive of seven-ICU beds with the average occupation rate at 40% to 60%. At the onset of the pandemic, LBJ Medical Center had 11 ventilators with 7 in operable status.  

The Health Department had no quarantine facilities nor equipment or supplies to conduct virus testing. And this was the same situation at LBJ.

Lolo noted that the lack of universal knowledge on the nature and makeup of the coronavirus created uncertainty on determining the appropriate scope of the territory’s Containment and Protection Strategy.  And contact tracing had not yet been fully developed with American Samoa lacking the tools or technology to implement a contact tracing network.

“In the absence of actual experience of losing a loved one from the coronavirus, our people didn’t and still don’t take the Coronavirus pandemic seriously as manifested in complaints and lawsuits,” Lolo said, but didn’t provide additional information on the lawsuits pending in the High Court and on which Samoa News has previously reported.

The governor then explained what the territory has done with the help of CARES Act funding including allocation from DOI/OIA. For example, constructing a COVID-19 patient ward at LBJ, quarantine facilities and purchases of testing equipment and supplies. Overflow medical tents have also been purchased to supplement constructed COVID-19 patient facilities.

“Even with the construction of these new facilities, it was a certainty that our healthcare system will be easily overwhelmed as soon as we have a confirmed case because our community is tight knit, thus the virus will spread like wildfire,” he said, noting that new ventilators were purchased bringing the total to 51.

With the lingering and real threat to the local healthcare system being overwhelmed, he said actions were taken locally including the immediate closure of the territory’s borders. And the cultural and village system of enforcement was also immediately deployed.

“Our people needed to get the message that this COVID-19 pandemic is real and very dangerous, and our cultural network and social hierarchy was utilized... to propagate information and to enforce restrictions established by the government,” said Lolo, who noted that leaders of the Fono and Judicial played an important role in educating the public on the virus and also to participate in the enforcement process.

According to the governor, the long-term prognosis of the pandemic extending its existence to 2021 and possibly beyond, “prompted investments in building technology-based networks to facilitate work being done remotely to ensure that government services to the people is not interrupted.”

“Ensuring continuity of services for all three branches of government compelled the allocation of funds to setup systems at home to actualize this objective particularly the Legislature and the Judiciary branches of government,” said Lolo, who didn’t elaborate further how much was allocated to the Fono and the court.

An ASG official told Samoa News that the Fono and the Judicial branches were each allocated $500,000 from the ASG’s coronavirus account. And that the allocation to the court came later after a June 17th financial report on COVID-19 money was prepared and had made its way to some lawmakers.

In his letter, the governor appeared to complain about federal oversight of COVID-19 funds allocated to the Fono and the $10,000 that has already been given to each of the four villages — Leone, Faleniu, Nu’uuli and Pago Pago — for enforcement of COVID-19 restrictions as well as local drug laws.

“Some of the federal agencies are questioning the merits and legitimacy of the decisions I have rendered with regard to the distribution of funds to elected officials of the Legislature and to the villages,” he said but didn’t elaborate further.

(As previously reported by Samoa News, the US Treasury’s Office of Inspector General has raised concerns over the money allocated to the Fono saying that $20,000 each to the Senate President and House Speaker as well as $10,000 each for other lawmakers “are unrelated to the COVID-19 health emergency.” However the village funding is okay — it just needs to meet reporting requirements of the CARES Act, the Office said. See Samoa News edition July 17th for details.)

Lolo said the funds facilitated the implementation of the territory’s COVID-19 Containment and Protection Strategy utilizing successful best practices from “our past against life ending health pandemic” — (referring to the 1918 Influenza Pandemic when American Samoa closed its borders to prevent the spread of the influenza to the territory.)

The governor reiterated actions taken by the government to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into the territory:

•     borders closed

•     expanded coronavirus related health care infrastructure for quarantine and treatment;

•     secured the ability to conduct testing;

•     articulated restriction protocols;

•     established our unique version of contact tracing using our cultural network; and

•     established the most effective enforcement system utilizing standard and cultural law enforcement practices.

“This envisioned outcome is to protect lives and maintain some level of operating normalcy,” the governor said and thanked US President Donald Trump as well as the US Congress “for giving us the means through the availability of funds which allowed us to build a COVID-19 Free Bubble environment to escape the deadly clutches of this insidious virus.”

Lolo also recognized with great gratitude Bernhardt’s leadership and his colleagues at DOI. The governor’s letter is copied to leaders of the Fono and Judicial, DOI officials, Congresswoman Aumua Amata and White House officials.