Governor says “so far” the cost of first Repatriation Flight is over $1M
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — So far the cost of the first repatriation flight from the US, that arrived on island Feb. 1 is “over $1 million” and the government is fronting payment of expenses, to be reimbursed later by the federal government.
This is according to Gov. Lemanu Peleti Palepoi Sialega Mauga, responding to media questions at last Friday’s news conference, called by the governor to provide an update for the public on the first repatriation flight, with all 159 passengers testing negative of the COVID-19 virus, while they remain in quarantine at the Tradewinds Hotel.
The governor was asked about the cost of the first repatriation flight and if ASG is getting any federal funds for the repat program from the US Department of Interior. Health director Motusa Tuileama Nua had told a Senate committee more than a week ago that the Health Department has submitted an application to DOI seeking $5 million for repatriation operations.
Lemanu told reporters that with the change-over to a new administration in the federal government, the DOI and US Federal Emergency Management Agency have requested that ASG “front” up payment for repatriation and ASG will be reimbursed later for allowable costs.
He said that costs so far for the first flight are “over $1 million” but that amount is not firmed up yet as there are other expected expenditures later upon completion of the 14-day quarantine. Those expenses include hotels costs, food, supplies and telephone expenses.
Lemanu believes that DOI and others in the federal government are preparing to assist American Samoa, through funding going to either DoH, LBJ or the Governor’s Office for the repatriation operations.
A follow-up question to Lemanu: Why not use leftover COVID-19 funds allocated to American Samoa last year — under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Act (CARES Act) — especially with a recent ASG Treasury report showing $75 million in unspent CARES Act grant money.
The governor responded that the majority of that funding comes with specific restrictions for use. For example, the local Education Department has a large COVID-19 funding allocation with specific use that doesn’t qualify for repatriation use.
He believes that there will be some expenses for the repat program that cannot be reimbursed by DOI, but the majority of the money already used will be reimbursed by the feds. He also said that the only funding that can be used for the repat program is the money allocated to the Governor’s Office and some from DoH and LBJ.
A follow-up media question asked if COVID-19 funds used for unrelated expenses — such as money given to the Fono last year — could be utilized for the repatriation payment costs?
Lemanu responded that local revenues would be used to repay COVID-19 funds spent on expenses not related to COVID-19.
He said the Governor’s Office and the COVID-19 Task Force continue to look for funds for the repat program.
Last Friday afternoon, the Governor’s Office released two press releases, following the news conference. One press release acknowledged that 159 repatriated passengers tested negative for the COVID-19 virus.
While “this is great news”, Lemanu is quoted in the news release saying, “…our work is not complete. We need to understand that although this is an indicator of our progress of closely monitoring our travelers, the COVID-19 Task Force is committed to their goal, to keep American Samoa COVID-19 Free.”
“And this will require the stringent policies of quarantine to remain in place until we are all clear,” he said, adding that none of the passengers will leave quarantine early.
The governor said he supports what’s planned by the task force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Talauega Eleasalo Va’alele Ale, who is also the Governor’s Authorized Representative (GAR).
“Undertaking this massive coordination within the first 30 days in office is a great challenge. I am thankful for the GAR’s courage and leadership during this repatriation effort,” Lemanu pointed out.
The second press release quotes Talauega saying that although the tests came back negative, “we are not out of the woods yet” and “we need to stay vigilant.”
“American Samoa as a whole needs to continue educating ourselves on COVID-19. Prepare yourselves for life after exposure and get vaccinated,” he said and pointed out that American Samoa is fortunate to have had tremendous support from the community, private sector, and the Administration, “and their great display of patriotism humbles me.”
“LOTONUU is alive and well here in American Samoa. Especially during this Long Journey Home for our repatriated travelers,” Talauega said.