Govt. undecided, cargo ship still quarantined in Fiji

The National Emergency Operations Centre (N.E.O.C.) has not decided yet whether to let a ship currently quarantined in Fiji to come to Samoa when the sailors have cleared their medical checks.

On Sunday, Fiji Village reported that two crew members of the cargo ship MV Island Chief had tested positive for COVID-19 when they undertook their pre-Samoa tests.

Interim Chair of N.E.O.C., Agafili Shem Leo, said the ship is now at the quarantine buoy of the coast of Fiji and the two positive-testing sailors have been isolated in a hospital. They are all being monitored for symptoms.

Fiji’s Permanent Secretary for Health, Dr. James Dong, said the two men both tested a weak positive twice, which suggests they are either at the outset of a new infection or are historical cases. This is yet to be determined. 

“It’s also important for the public to know that there was another ship which was confirmed by the Fijian Government in the beginning of this week that two of the seafarers have been confirmed to have Covid-19,” Agafili said.

He said the sailors were tested because of Samoa’s policy which requires a negative COVID-19 test to enter Samoan waters. All 12 men were tested and only two returned positive tests.

“These two seafarers have been isolated at one of the isolation centres in Fiji while this ship is anchored, quarantined outside of one of the international wharves.

"It is important that our policies are maintained and handled appropriately towards any ship that wishes to enter our borders from overseas,” Agafili said. 

Samoa has recently instated a new policy that forbids citizens from being repatriated within six months of a positive COVID-19 diagnosis.

But the MV Island Chief has a lot of supplies and personal packages that Samoans needs for the Christmas and New Year period, Agafili said.

Asked whether the seafarers will be permitted to come to Samoa and for local stevedoring crew to help offload supplies as per protocal, Agafili said the N.E.O.C. will have to make that decision.

“That is a decision the committee will have to make afterwards and subsequently the Cabinet,” he said. 

People wanting to enter Samoa after they have been sick with COVID-19 must wait six months after their illness, then return three negative P.C.R. tests each seven days apart before a blood test 72 hours before flying.

Agafili said the policy will be in force from 2021. 

Director-General of Health Leausa Dr. Take Naseri said the blood test which can find antibodies in the blood that show evidence of an old infection is the best tool for confirming historical cases.

“Antibodies are the most specific, so it doesn’t matter what time they do it. As long as we see antibodies we know,” he said.

Once a person has started showing symptoms for COVID-19 their ability to infect others starts to drop. Research has found that once recovered, people are no longer contagious.

Despite this, the N.E.O.C. maintains the six month wait precaution is necessary. 

Meanwhile, the last of this year’s repatriation flights will land on Tuesday with around 50 people flying in from Fiji, joining a large group who landed via New Zealand on Monday and Friday.

A second repatriation flight from Fiji was scheduled for Wednesday 09 December but has since been cancelled. 

Agafili said there is one more repatriation flight scheduled to bring 296 sailors stranded all over the world back to Samoa on Friday 22 January.

He said there are no plans yet to continue with repatriation flights from New Zealand because after 16 dedicated flights surely everyone should be home by now.

“We would be surprised if there still are people left,” he said. “Even the flights which arrived had a lot of vacant seats.

“There’s also this new attitude that they do not want to return home yet when they’re asked to return while some say they do not have airfares.

“Hence, we’ve decided to halt repatriation flights and to repatriate our sailors before the committee proposes to the Government again to continue the repatriation flights for the public by the first quarter in 2021.”

After postponing a full direct flight from Los Angeles, there are around 150 people who need to make their way to New Zealand in order to return to Samoa. 

Beyond just sailors, who have a dedicated flight scheduled, there are missionaries, scholarship students and other Samoans who were living overseas for various reasons.

Some have been able to travel to Samoa on one of the two New Zealand flights this month but some, like the missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, have not.

Agafili said they will be considered for future repatriation efforts. 

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