The Marshall Islands, once almost defunct, faces an outbreak

As a remote country in the Pacific, the Marshall Islands is almost completely free of Covid-19 infections, has recorded only a handful of cases throughout the pandemic, with no detected community transmission. .

But in just over a week, more than 4,000 people have tested positive out of a population of about 60,000, including the country’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Jack Niedenthal. He provided Update on Facebook and said 75% of those tested in Majuro, the capital, had Covid, “an extremely high positive rate.”

In an interview on Tuesday, Mr. Niedenthal said that there was some panic and concern, as the archipelago, located between Hawaii and the Philippines, did not record a single Covid case last year.

“So people were thinking, ‘Hey, these guys really know what they’re doing,’ ‘ he said. “The problem is that people are starting to want to travel, they miss their loved ones, some leaders have traveled.”

He said when life begins to return to normal, containment of the virus will be impossible. Mr Niedenthal expects the number of cases to continue to rise, given the dense population density. “The next three to four days are going to be quite difficult,” he said.

Hundreds of medical workers have been among those infected. At the hospital in Majuro, vaccinations were halted because nearly the entire team was off, most of the medical record holders were off, and the housekeeping staff was reduced to one, he said.

On August 10, Mr Niedenthal urged medical staff to return to work even if they tested positive, saying they would be tested and would not come into contact with the patient. He said it is a drastic measure that “has been taken around the world and the Pacific as the number of Covid rises rapidly and we have no other choice”.

The number of hospitalizations and deaths tends to be lower than the number of cases, but as of this week, there have been very few serious cases, including six deaths.

The population is highly vaccinated: 72% are fully vaccinated in Majuro and 61% are vaccinated, according to government data. The Marshall Islands closed its borders in early March 2020, taking more drastic measures than its neighbors at the time. It was one of the last places on the planet to receive the first cases, when two travelers have been quarantined before going public in October 2020.

Mr Niedenthal said the first known cases of the current outbreak were in a group of teenagers with no history of travel or contact with anyone who had been in quarantine. “So we knew we were struggling, because they came from a large community,” he said.

He said that in the past few days, people are worried, but the sense of community on the island is very high. “It’s not like the panic in America, where people are buying toilet paper,” he said.

And unlike at the beginning of the pandemic, the islands now have access to Covid treatments, such as Paxlovid, an antiviral drug used to prevent severe Covid cases, due to to the United States government. Representatives from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have arrived on the island in recent days to assist with the response.

Other governments got involved: Taiwan donated thousands of masks, gowns and other hygiene products, while American Samoa sent shipments of Paxlovid. The Australian Government has provided protective equipment, testing kits, masks and face shields.

Angeline Heine Reimers, a government employee in Majuro, said catching the virus was almost “inevitable”. Many people live in multi-family homes, she said, adding that 15 out of 16 people living in her home have been infected with the virus.

Heine Reimers, 46, said: “The good thing is that we are all vaccinated. Many Marshallese live with comorbidities that put them at greater risk if they become ill, and the Marshall Islands have one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world, According to data compiled by the World Bank. “Everybody is really scared,” says Heine Reimers.

Marie Davis Milne, mayor of Ebon Atoll, about 240 miles southwest of Majuro, said that authorities are trying to prevent the spread of the virus by preventing most planes and boats from traveling. between neighboring islands.

Over the past few days, she said, she has volunteered to test sites on Majuro, where some people have been waiting in the hot sun for hours. “Even when it rains, they don’t move,” says Davis Milne. “They don’t want to lose their place in the line.”

Jenny Gross and Livia Albeck-Ripka contribution report.

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