Isolation for workers who serviced coronavirus ship

The National Emergency Operations Centre (N.E.O.C.) will quarantine frontline workers who serviced a container ship, the Fesco Askold, which was later found to be carrying three sailors infected with the coronavirus.

The N.E.O.C. did not say how many frontline staff would be placed in controlled isolation and tested for the virus over the next five days. Different branches of the Government did not respond to repeated questions about its response to the incident on Tuesday.

The Government's response was announced on Tuesday evening, nearly 22 hours after the Ministry of Health was first alerted about the ship carrying infected sailors about 9.30 pm on Monday night.

The American territory's Director of Health, Motusa Tuileama Nua, told the Samoa Observer a call was made directly to the Director-General of the Ministry of Health, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, after the sailors tested positive. 

The N.E.O.C. statement says the vessel Fesco Askold was docked at the quarantine buoy at Matautu for “less than 24 hours,” and staff followed strict procedure when meeting the crew and offloading its supplies. 

(According to the ship tracking website, the Cuban flagged cargo ship docked at Matautu just before 8pm on Saturday night and remained there for just over 22 hours). 

The ship continued onto Pago Pago, where it was met by health staff who tested the crew on board, finding three of its 17 seafarers were infected with the virus.  

According to the N.E.O.C. statement, the vessel was met at a quarantine buoy a mile away from the Matautu wharf and the crew isolated in one room onboard while local health workers conducted a health assessment.

Then a designated pilot from the Samoa Ports Authority sailed the ship into the wharf, which was sealed and watched over by Police while the containers were offloaded and then sterilised.

“These procedures were strictly followed in the assessment of Fesco Askold,” the statement reads.

“All frontline officials were fully protected with personal protection equipment, masks, and gloves in the performance of their prescribed duties at the wharf." 

Since news broke in American Samoa overnight, multiple phone calls to the Minister of Health and the Director-General of Health seeking comments or an update on the situation have not been met with a response.

There was widespread panic and misinformation on social media on Tuesday about whether the disease had in fact reached Samoan shores. There is no evidence that it has. Samoa and American Samoa currently remain among the fewer than 20 nation-states and territories to remain free of the pandemic which has now infected 50 million people worldwide.

The Associate Minister of Health Tofa Lio Foleni and Deputy Director General for Public Health Tagaloa Dr. Robert Thomsen deferred questions to their superiors.

The Press Secretariat, also responsible for distributing official statements relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, could not specifically advise when Samoa might expect to hear from authorities.

Leausa made just one public comment early in the day, with an interview published in Samoa Global News. 

He asked the public not to panic and reassured that any people who interacted with the vessel and its crew were in full personal protective equipment (P.P.E.) and are being isolated and tested as a precaution. 

But despite his pleas, Samoa’s social media was rife with exactly that on Tuesday with no official statements to dampen growing fears.

By noon on Tuesday, several schools had decided to close early and are waiting on the Ministry before they reopen.

One school, St. Peter’s Chanel Community School in Moamoa closed early after its parents were informed one of its students had been connected via family to a person in close contact with the vessel’s crew.

"It has been confirmed a student in Year 1 has been in direct contact with a family member who worked in clearing cargo from the Fesco Askold Ship which has confirmed COVID -19 cases in Pago," Principal Tepora Tu'i said.

"At this stage, we are waiting for the Government announcement as now contact tracing is now in place. Parents are advised to pick their children up now from school and we will continue to maintain communications based on Government information."

But despite the email's implication, the Samoa Observer could not confirm that the Government was undertaking contact tracing as part of its containment measures. Contact tracing is a process whereby people who may have come into contact with those who may have been infected are themselves monitored or put into isolation. 

Two emails to the Ministry of Health, the National Emergency Operations Centre, the Samoa Ports Authority and the Ministry of Prime Minister and Cabinet were not responded to.

Students left earlier than normal on Tuesday afternoon and parents who talked to the Samoa Observer said they supported their school’s decision.

A second school, Le Amosa Savavau School in Vaitele-fou decided to close until further notice, and is reminding parents to avoid large gatherings, maintain distance, wear a mask and to practice regular hand washing.

Meanwhile, the official Facebook page of the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development shared today an instructional video on how to stay safe from the coronavirus.

Taekwondo instructor and Pacific Games medallist Kaino Thomsen Fuataga told his 50 strong student body he is postponing classes until more information is known about the situation.

He had already put classes on hold until early July to contend with the state of emergency restrictions and has been rebuilding the Klas Taekwondo Club in Matautu-utu.

Now his three classes a week are back on the burner until he is sure it is safe to resume. 

“I don’t usually cancel lessons until I feel it’s really necessary, and it’s a very serious case so I felt like today, there was a lot of news about it, I saw it everywhere, and I heard some schools were closing down.

“Even if there is nothing to it, prevention is better than cure. It’s good to be on the safe side.”

Mr. Thomsen-Fuataga said he has been thinking about pausing his classes ever since last week when American Samoa recorded a coronavirus scare from another vessel, that eventually was reported a false-positive. 

While he said he has had no official communication from any Government agency or ministry he is waiting patiently for an official statement.

“I heard they are having an emergency meeting and they will have an official news about it," Mr. Thomsen-Fuataga said.

“The only decision I can make is to postpone lessons, that for me is important. Anything beyond that will come from Government.

“There is no need for any panic, just be cautious and careful.”

Mr. Thomsen-Fuataga said the families of his students have supported his decision to postpone the lessons.

The Ministry of Health was also scheduled to host a “risk communication and community engagement capacity building training for media” on Tuesday but this was postponed.

It was supposed to be hosted by the Risk Communication and Community Engagement team, which is a combination of Ministry of Health and World Health Organisation staff.

An invitation to media said the two-day training was going to focus on “the basics of Risk Communication, […and] the development of the COVID-19 response plan.”

It is not known when or whether the training will be rescheduled. 

In American Samoa, 11 people have been moved into quarantine. Seven are Department of Health personnel who boarded the vessel, two are lab workers and two are the Port Administration ship pilots.

Until now all 17 crew members remain without symptoms of COVID-19, and remain on the vessel. This includes the three who tested positive. 

Pago Pago port is now closed until tomorrow morning with very few staff members still on site and parts of the dock being disinfected.

The full statement from the Government is reprinted verbatim below:

Press Release

COVID-19 cases reported in American Samoa on November 8th, 2020:

Three (3) positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported in American Samoa. These cases have been confirmed to be some of the crew members of the container ship, Fesco Askold which arrived in American Samoa on Sunday, 8th November (American Samoa time).

The matter was relayed immediately to the Director General of the Ministry of Health – Leausa Samau Dr Take Naseri by American Samoa’s Epidemiologist at the Department of Health – Aifili Tufa through a telephone conversation last night.

The Fesco Askold began its sail from California, docked in Tahiti, before it set sail south and arrived in Samoa on Sunday, 8th November. The ship left early in the morning of Monday 9th November for American Samoa.

Fesco docked at Matautu less than 24 hours. The process at Matautu is well coordinated and controlled when any vessel is authorized to enter the wharf. The process is strictly co-managed by the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Police, Customs, Quarantine, Immigration and the Samoa Port Authority. The ship – Fesco Askold went through this highly controlled process.

As has been from the beginning of the Proclamation of the State of Emergency for COVID 19, all vessels requesting to enter Samoa are required to have valid medical clearance(s) for all crew members, with negative COVID 19 test results, and reports from the last point of departure. These documents are meticulously assessed by Samoa’s health officials at the quarantine buoy, about a mile away from Matautu wharf. A ship could only be granted authorization to enter / dock at Matautu Wharf only if it has satisfied these health requirements.

All crew members including the ship’s captain are required to isolate in a designated room onboard the ship, while the health assessment is being conducted. Upon satisfaction of Samoa’s health requirements, a designated pilot from the Samoa Port Authority would sail the ship into the Matautu wharf.

The area on the wharf where the ship is docked is sealed off and the Police guard is always on site to make sure that no one of the crew members comes on land. Stevedoring service is also closely monitored to avoid any contact with the crew.

These procedures were strictly followed in the assessment of Fesco Askold. All frontline officials were fully protected with personal protection equipment (PPE), masks, and gloves in the performance of their prescribed duties at the wharf.  Containers offloaded from this ship were sterilized. This joint operation has been undertaken carefully to make sure that Samoa is safe and protected from the COVID 19.

The country is hereby assured that Samoa remains COVID 19 free to date, and the National Emergency Operations Centre through effective coordination of border agencies continues to work tirelessly to safeguard Samoa in these difficult times.

In fortifying our national efforts to protect Samoa, the frontline officials who serviced Fesco Askold are now placed in a controlled isolation. This is part of health precautionary measures. They will be tested over the next five (5) days for COVID 19. To date, they all remain healthy and well. 

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