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Gov still opts for 90% vax rate before normalizing travel to territory

Hawaiian Air passengers deplane at Pago Pago Intl Airport

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — With the government pushing for a 90% or more vaccination rate for American Samoa, one question that continues to circulate in the community, on social media and those from off-island interested in local issues, is when will the government fully reopen borders — especially air service between Honolulu and Pago Pago — without any more restrictions including quarantine.

And this was one of the media queries asked of Health Department officials at last Friday’s DoH news conference, live streamed on KVZK-TV. Health officials have said in previous news conferences that the final decision on full re-opening of borders rests with the governor.

With the 10 positive imported COVID-19 cases — all from passengers arriving on Hawaiian Airlines flights since commerce air service between Honolulu and Pago Pago reopened on a limited basis in September, the governor is pushing to increase the vaccination rate, with the mass vaccination drive on Tutuila in it’s third week.

Responding to the question, DoH Epidemiologist, Dr. Aifili John Tufa said during the news conference that it’s the governor’s intent to try to raise the coverage for the entire territory to 90% and the reason for this is that every single commercial flight has brought in an infection.

He noted that travelers are placed in quarantine upon arrival and that is helping to keep the virus from spreading into the community.

“So it’s imperative for us to make sure that we’re protected inside the community before the virus seeps in. But whether we’re going to move forward as far as opening up the borders, I’m not qualified to answer that question,” he said.

Dr. Tufa noted that other countries including some in the Pacific have reached the 90% or more vaccination coverage. “And what we’re seeing is that when a country or area reaches that rate, the chances of the virus spreading widely in the community, like wildfire, is really reduced,” he pointed out.

For example, he said is the Republic of Palau, that has “claimed close to 90% or even more being fully vaccinated. So they have repatriation flights coming in, with no quarantine — those individuals coming from different countries — they give them a test and then they go home.”

“And even though some of the travelers did test positive afterwards, there’s still no evidence of community spread of COVID-19 in those countries,” he said.

“So what does that tell us? It tells us that high rate of vaccination coverage will stop the spread of the virus. So until we get there, we don’t know if we’re going to open the borders yet,” he said, and noted that that decision rests with the Administration.

Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga said in a recent news release that setting the vaccination rate at 90% is to achieve “herd immunity” which the governor points out “is the key for American Samoa’s defense against COVID-19.”

Lemanu noted that this will also “give American Samoa's emergency first responders, local public health facilities, and public health administrators the best opportunity to protect our territory from the spread of the virus."