Take coronavirus precautions: microbiologist

People should take precautions until more is known about the potential spread of the novel coronavirus in Samoa, says Associate Professor Dr Siouxsie Wiles, an expert in infectious disease. 

After news broke that three vessel-crew members that had passed through Apia’s waters last week had tested positive for the virus in Pago Pago, Dr. Wiles said avoiding large gatherings and practicing good hygiene habits will help avoid an outbreak.

The Government officially confirmed at 7:30pm on Tuesday that it was informed of the positive cases on Monday night and that an undisclosed number of local staff have been quarantined for an undisclosed length of time.

Dr. Wiles said until more is known people should be cautious about attending large gatherings, and start keeping a record of their movements from when the boat arrived in Apia.

“That will really help contact tracers if they end up being contacted,” she said.

“I would like to see all places being a bit more proactive about ensuring there is a way you can remain calm but tell people what are the things they need to be doing to help authorities to do their job.”

She said avoiding large gatherings or wearing a mask to them, like church or occasions, can help avoid a “superspreader” event that results in a large outbreak.

“The really tricky thing is that people are infectious for a few days before they know it.”

Washing hands for 20 seconds with soap and water and drying them after, wearing a face mask in public or crowded places, avoiding gatherings and keeping a diary of one's movements are all ways to protect yourself and the community.


But how likely is an outbreak?

Dr. Wiles said this depends on when the three positive crew members begin, if they do at all, to show symptoms of SARS-CoV-2, the disease caused by COVID-19.

Currently the three do not show symptoms, nor do any of their 14 other crew mates who are all isolated on board the Fesco Askold together off the coast of American Samoa.

“If it is a PCR test people can test positive a long time after they have had the virus […] the really important question to ask is do they have symptoms.”

In the meantime, Dr. Wiles said Samoa’s best bet is to have not only the immediate contacts of the crew in isolation for two weeks but also anyone they were in contact with between the ship arriving and leaving on the 8th of November.

With just two days between the ship arriving and the news of the positive cases being known, it is possible that any potentially infected person has not become infectious yet.

“The really conservative thing to do is to do contact tracing of contacts and put a double ring around people,” she explained.

“If we know some people have been exposed we ask them to isolate and then you contact trace the people who have been exposed to them and ask them to isolate as well. 

“It would surprise me if [the Government] didn’t isolate anyone that had had contact with anybody on the ship or with the ship itself.”

If the people who were in contact with the handful of staff now quarantine “behave responsibly” any potential spread of disease will be minimal, and that is only if the three positive crew members were even infectious when they were docked in Apia.

So far the Department of Health in American Samoa has not disclosed whether they believe the crew are or have been infectious yet.

“The really worrying thing would be if somebody has become infected, if they don’t isolate and then go off to the kind of environment that could become a super-spreader event like going to church, going to large events with lots of people, then you can get quite spectacular spread,” Dr. Wiles said.

“Most people will only infect one or two people.”

Dr. Wiles also said transmission of the virus  through surfaces has proved to be fairly rare. She said if the containers or the contents of the containers were in fact contaminated, leaving them dockside for three days should sort it out.

Research has shown the virus can survive on surfaces at room temperature for around three days, but will survive much longer if frozen, like in a freezer container.

The Government has yet to disclose what was unloaded from the vessel and whether it has been distributed further from the wharf yet.

“The really important thing is how many people, how long they have had contact and what kind of contact, and then stopping any further spread,” Dr. Wiles said.

“We have had a couple of instances where it looks like transmission has come from surfaces but this now seems to be not as important a route of transmission as contact with people or being in the same space as infected people.”


Director-General of the Ministry of Health Leausa Dr. Take Naseri was informed of the news last night over the phone.

On Tuesday morning, American Samoa's Director of Health, Motusa Tuileama Nua told the Samoa Observer that the ship left Apia on the 8th of November and arrived in Pago Pago on the 9th. 

“Before the ship came onshore tests were conducted and three sailors tested positive,” he said.

“Reconfirmed tests have been positive too.

“The vessel is now being sent out to open waters.

“We have to figure out what to do with this boat.

“We informed Take [Samoan Ministry of Health Director General Dr. Take Naseri] about 9.30pm last night.”

The Samoa Observer understands the World Health Organisation Samoa country office was also informed of the new cases, and that last night M.O.H. began an investigation of the processes at the wharf.

The ship spent 22 hours in port in Apia, according to the ship-tracking website vesselfinder.com. In their statement, the Government said instead: “less than 24 hours.”

According to a local report, yesterday local time, the American Samoa Health Ministry epidemiologist, Dr Aifili John Tufa, announced three of 17 crew members of the Fesco Askold tested positive to the virus after arriving in the territory. 

The Fesco Askold is a 9900 tonne cargo ship registered under the flag of Cyprus and arrived in Pago after an earlier port call in Apia last Saturday according to independent shipping data. Before Apia, it had left Tahiti on the 4th of November.

So far 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.

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