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Governor has no plans to close down commercial fights to and from HNL

Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga
Mandatory vaccinations for ASG employees is still in the future

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Speaking at last Friday’s cabinet meeting, Gov. Lemanu Peleti Mauga announced that he and Lt. Gov. Talauega Eleasalo V. Ale — who is also chairman of the COVID-19 Task Force — have no plans to close-borders on commercial flights between Honolulu and Pago Pago. And this decision was shared with Fono leaders during a meeting earlier that day.

Lemanu — who was among the 200-plus passengers on the Sept. 13th flight from Honolulu where the first imported positive COVID-19 case was identified from the travelers — met in person with his cabinet for the first time, since he left in July for Honolulu.

The governor informed cabinet members that he and Talauega met earlier that day with Fono leaders, who where informed of future plans for commercial flights. And that he has seen first hand — as a passenger on the Sept. 13th flight from Honolulu — the difficult and challenging task faced by the task force team and the medical team with the resumption of commercial flights. He commended them for their hard and difficult work.

He acknowledged the uproar over the first positive COVID-19 case when commercial flights resumed on Sept. 13th, with some residents calling for the return of pre-quarantine in Honolulu as mandated during repatriation flights — and closure of borders on flights between Honolulu and Pago Pago.

At last week Wednesday’s joint Fono hearing with some members of the task force and physicians focusing on the first positive case, many lawmakers questioned the current process with commercial flights, the costs and the requests to return to pre-quarantine in Honolulu.

During the cabinet meeting, Lemanu mentioned that he informed Fono leaders that the government cannot afford the previous process used for repatriation flights, as it was expensive, with a cost of close to $2 million per flight — including quarantine in Honolulu.

With the high cost in mind, the government reached the decision to use the TalofaPass websystem, which screens all incoming travelers, according to the governor. This system/ process is an initiative of ASG, and was formulated with input from government officials, with a Honolulu-based contractor carrying out the needs and wants from American Samoa, Lemanu said, who also noted that the contractor is familiar with such a process as they created a similar system for Hawaii.

With three tests conducted prior to departing for the territory as well as required quarantine upon arrival in the territory, Lemanu argues that the current protocol for incoming travelers is working to protect the territory and that the task force was fully aware that with the re-start of commercial flights the virus would enter the territory at some point.

However, he said the blessing is that American Samoa is able to contain the virus from spreading into the community. “We cannot stop flights, but we have reduced them to a monthly basis,” he said, and pointed out a majority of travelers are returning residents who sought medical assistance in the U.S and medical referrals from LBJ Medical Center and the VA.

He said there is that very small percentage of travelers who went vacationing, despite the task force discouraging such a practice during the pandemic.

As commercial flights continue on a limited basis, the governor urged the public to get fully vaccinated for all those who are eligible to do so. “If you don’t want to do it, do it for our children... who cannot get vaccinated,” he said.

There were calls by lawmakers last week during the meeting with task force members for mandatory vaccination starting with ASG’s workforce.

Lemanu informed his cabinet members that he and Talauega — who is also the Governor’s Authorized Representative (GAR) have discussed this issue and there is a time in the near future that this will be made mandatory in government service, but that decision will be announced in the future.

With his recent trip to the U.S. the governor advised residents traveling to the U.S. for medical needs, that the cost of living is very expensive. He said even the current ASG per diem for off island travel cannot cover it — from hotel room to food. He asked cabinet directors to revisit the per-diem issue and keep it in mind when it comes to off-island travel.

Lemanu said he and Talauega cannot stop commercial flights between Honolulu and Pago Pago as local residents need to travel for their medical needs. He advised those heading to the U.S to keep safe by getting fully vaccinated, wearing a mask and observing social distancing.

Under current restrictions, full vaccination is required prior to entering American Samoa for any person who is 16 years or older, unless the person is not medically qualified.

The cabinet meeting held at the Election Office conference room was aired later on KVZK-TV and the private news media were not invited.