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Act like coronavirus already here: top doctor

A Samoan medical doctor has appealed to the public to act as if the coronavirus (COVID-19) is already in the community and to isolate themselves accordingly to avoid potential spread.

Sala Dr. Esmay Ah Leong, who is a General Practitioner at the Samoa Healthcare Medical Clinic, said Samoans should act as if the COVID-19 is already in the community and to isolate themselves accordingly to avoid potential spread.

On Saturday, the Government of Samoa announced that six of the eight suspected cases of COVID-19 tests have shown no signs of the virus, with the final two still awaiting results, the day after putting Samoa in a state of emergency with severe restrictions on public gatherings and movement. 

The measures include banning bus travel, closing hospitality venues, restricting markets to trading hours of 6am until 4pm, closing schools until further notice.

Sala said while Samoa has been fortunate to not have anyone test positive for COVID-19, but a negative test is not conclusive either and precautions should be taken.

“Take for example New Zealand’s [first] COVID-19 case – he tested negative two times before testing positive on his third test,” she said. 

The man, New Zealand citizen in his 60s, had travelled from Iran through Indonesia and arrived in Auckland on February 26. 

New Zealand has around 50 cases, and the nation is facing unprecedented Government measures to clamp down on the spread of the disease. 

“Samoa with a suspect case has decided to take an aggressive proactive approach in declaring a state of emergency with the measures in place limiting social or public gatherings and travel,” Sala said.

“It is understandable why an aggressive approach is necessary.  Not too long ago, we were hit unprepared with a measles outbreak that claimed so many of our young lives.”

She said the challenge in preventing the virus from sweeping Samoa is at the border, where despite the nation’s best efforts, COVID-19 could still sneak in unbeknownst to its carrier.

As it is asymptomatic for around two weeks, though infectious during this time, airport screenings may not do enough to pick up the virus at the border.

“Regardless of the fact that we don’t yet have a positive case, we need to assume that with exposure to foreigners and travel, we cannot exclude the presence of COVID-19 already in our midst.  We can be carriers and continue to be asymptomatic,” she said.

Under the state of emergency declared on Friday, the Government has moved to ban all international travelers from entering Samoa, reserving the right only for returning citizens or residents of Samoa which has undergone a COVID-19 test five days prior and been declared negative. 

To limit arrivals, there are just two flights a week between New Zealand and Samoa, one each for Samoa Airways and Air New Zealand, while flights to and from Australia, Fiji, Tonga and American Samoa are suspended until further notice.     

“I applaud the initiative in place by Government in limiting access and admissions through our borders,” Sala said.

“However, I am wary of the fact that most cases so far in our neighbouring New Zealand for COVID-19 were imported, it was not community acquired.  Hence, even if we manage to contain and prevent any potential threat through our local shutdown, the open border poses the greatest risk for us still.  

“If we are to repatriate our people back home, it is necessary to quarantine for at least 14 days before being released to their homes.

“The practicality of keeping our borders open for the supply of goods is vital but the movement of people should now be prohibited.”

Sala said she advised returning Samoans to quarantine themselves at home for two weeks on arrival regardless of their health status to avoid potential spread of the COVID-19 disease.

Citizens should be allowed to return home, but should be quarantined near the airport if possible, she added. 

On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi announced that from Monday, all arrivals will be required to self-isolate at home for two weeks. 

“While it is the duty of our Government to take care of its citizens wherever they are for studies, work or travels, we must first consider the overall risk to the people at home and consider whether we have the resources to contain an outbreak should there be one,” Sala said.

She said she supports the move to clamp down on public gatherings and travel around Samoa, to prevent the spread of disease. 

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