Lt. Gov. Talauega explains the new “Talofa Pass” travel system
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Four off-island personnel who arrived last week Thursday from Hawaii are assisting the government testing the “Talofa Pass” web-based system to screen passengers entering the territory when commercial air service provided by Hawaiian Airlines re-opens between Honolulu and Pago Pago later next month.
This is according to COVID-19 Task Force chairman, Lt. Gov. Talauega Eleasalo V. Ale, during Monday’s cabinet meeting where he emphasized that just because the government is tentatively set to re-open commercial air service on Aug. 26th, that doesn’t mean the boarder will be re-opened.
Talauega presented what he calls a “basic overview” of the American Samoa repatriation program and what’s expected next year and beyond on travel to and from the territory.
“The repatriation program is a multi-phase program to try to get us to a place where we can have normal travel to be safe and not allow the COVID-19 virus [into] American Samoa,” he said, noting that the territory’s borders have remained closed since March of last year.
And since the first-repatriation flight in February and up to this month, “we have successfully repatriated over 1,700 residents of American Samoa. It’s been a very difficult process,” he said.
While the “tally is not complete, we have spent over $9 million” during the seven-months of repatriation for phase one of the program, according to the chair, who noted that the task force along with the governor “saw that this is unsustainable for American Samoa. We don’t have this type of money to spend every 7 months.”
He said the last and final repatriation flight is July 29th and then flights will be returned to Hawaiian Airlines to operate, with the first commercial flight “tentatively scheduled” for Aug. 26th.
PHASE TWO: “TALOFA PASS”
“So we started exploring other avenues to accommodate the traveling needs of our people. And that leads me to the second phase, we’re looking at eliminating quarantine in Honolulu but put in its place, a web-based check-in, where people will check into this website,” he said.
Talauega gave a brief explanation on the process for using the website, currently called the “Talofa Pass”, which he says is the “working name for now.”
All visitors to American Samoa will go to the website and prepare a profile, where the traveler uploads travel documents needed, and COVID-19 vaccination card. The Attorney General and the Health Department “will screen these documents to make sure the person qualifies to enter,” Talauega said.
And there is a set of COVID-19 tests that the traveler will need to upload to the web-system, which is not live yet but details will be released soon. The first test result is required 21-days out before boarding the flight and an email will be sent to the traveler on this issue.
“The 21-days will give the Attorney General and Department of Health sufficient time to review who’s coming and making sure that person is a resident and coming to American Samoa for an approved reason,” he said and cited that an approved reason includes a government contractor, and a contractor who “provides important service that we can’t provide here.”
The next test, is 10-days out, followed by 5-days out. The traveler will get an email that acknowledges that the results of the tests were received and also a reminder of the next test. And the final test is 24-hours before boarding the flight.
“Instead of requiring everybody to go into a hotel [in Honolulu] to be quarantine for 14-days, we’re going to try to monitor everybody on their own. Once one of the test comes in positive, you are automatically out of the list, you can’t come,” he said.
Talauega said the idea is to “monitor and make sure that everybody” is COVID free before boarding the flight. At the airport, he said ASG will have personnel to check passenger temperatures making sure that “you are normal before you board the flight.”
According to the lieutenant governor, there is a “significant need to move away from spending $9 million every 7-months” and put in place a “solution that is less expensive but still protects our people to be able to travel.”
He explained that the plan at this point — as recommended by the “medical community” — is that upon arrival in the territory, travelers are taken to one of the three-or-four quarantine sites, “where you will spend anywhere between 3 to 7 days, maybe more.”
“But remember, you’re not being quarantine in Honolulu but we’re looking at quarantine here,” he said, noting that after the July 29th repatriation flight, ASG repatriation operations in Honolulu will close down, saying that the operation there is “very expensive” — such as the quarantine hotel site and food — all paid for by ASG.
“We hope that we will get all the necessary approvals from the governor before we move into phase two” with the first commercial flight tentatively planned for Aug. 26th, but that “date may move to September, depending on our [local] preparations,” he explained.
And once commercial flights resume, “we are not opening our borders — this is very important. The only people allowed to come to American Samoa are the people approved to enter and COVID-free,” he said.
The final, or third phase, “for now, [we’re] looking more to next year and beyond — and that is a system where we will continue to rely on Talofa Pass to screen everybody before they enter but once you arrive in American Samoa — go pick up your bags, walk outside” where the buses will transfer travelers to the designated quarantine sites.
According to the chair, four personnel were onboard the Medicaid flight last Thursday from Hawaii, that came down to pick up local travelers and medical patients heading to Honolulu. He said these four were the only ones allowed on the incoming flight.
“These people were chosen specifically to test the new system,” he said, referring to the “Talofa Pass”, noting that while repatriation flights had arrived during daytime, Hawaiian Airlines commercial flights will return to arriving at night.
“The process that we’re trying to test, with these four people, is passengers coming off the plane to the arrival terminal, being processed through Immigration,” he explained. “I’m trying to see if we can also at that same time, process their bags. That’s why we have people coming in on that flight. This is not a normal thing.”
(As of Monday afternoon, the four passengers are currently in quarantine at the Tradewinds Hotel.)
However, he said people are now asking him whether they can bring in family members on the other two Medicaid charters from Honolulu arriving on Aug. 5th and Aug. 12th and scheduled to pick up outbound patients and other travelers.
“The answer to that is no,” he said and stressed that, “we will only use these opportunities to test the system to make sure it’s viable and safe, so that we can move on to the second phase.”
ASG officials told Samoa News on Monday night that the four people on last Thursday’s flight were ASG Medicaid Office director Sandra King-Young, Agriculture director Solialealofiotagaloa I. T. Mutini and two officials of the company involved with the “Talofa Pass” system.
Talauega also emphasized during the cabinet meeting the importance of meeting the goal of more than 80% of the local eligible population to be fully COVID-19 vaccinated as American Samoa moves towards phase two of its operations.
Gov. Lemanu Peleti Palepoi Sialega Mauga echoed Talauega’s call, saying that it’s difficult to re-open borders when the numbers needed of those being fully vaccinated has not been achieved.
He also says that there has been talk of the border re-opening with Hawaiian Airlines’ first commercial flight. The governor emphasized that restarting these flights does not mean borders will re-open.
It only means that Hawaiian Airlines is taking over operation of flights between Honolulu and Pago Pago, but only a limited number of flights, the governor said.
(Samoa News will report in future editions on other issues raised at the cabinet meeting that the local private media was invited to attend.)