Arriving passengers' coronavirus tests "invalid"
The most recent repatriation flight from Auckland to Apia was carrying passengers with "invalid" out-of-date COVID-19 tests and missing medical clearances, an internal Government report shows.
An internal report obtained by the Samoa Observer states the 18 September flight carried several passengers without valid medical clearances to enter Samoa’s border under state of emergency rules.
The official 'COVID-19 Situation Report No. 95' dated 28 September and provided to this newspaper by a source connected to the Disaster Advisory Committee reports "many" passengers had medical approvals that did not meet requirements.
“Many [passengers’] COVID tests were done more than 3 days (invalid) prior [to] arrival as stated on Travel Advisory”, the document states.
“Only a few passengers did not present negative COVID test results and Medical clearance reports upon arrival.”
The situation report does not say whether any passengers were returned to New Zealand because of the violations.
But it does specify that 293 people disembarked the plane and "all 293 passengers are currently undergoing 14 days quarantine at designated sites."
The allowal of invalid testing at departure sites come despite the Government enforcing strict restrictions within Samoa's borders in the name of preventing the virus’ potential spread.
Samoa’s Travel Advice and Information Paper, signed by the Director-General of the Health Ministry, Leausa Dr. Take Naseri, was amended on Monday to specifically emphasise negative COVID-19 tests must be completed “within” three days of travel.
In the copy distributed through the Government Press Secretariat, the advisory reads, in red text: “failure can result in no board or entry denied and will be returned to last port where you boarded the flight to Samoa.”
The rsituation eport also says non-Samoan citizens from the United States, New Zealand and Australia, who should have received their travel approval from the Ministry of Health or the Government of Samoa, instead only had endorsement letters from Samoan Consulate offices in Auckland.
“Non-Samoan citizens with foreign passports (US, Australia, New Zealand) were permitted to travel with [the] endorsed letter provided by the Samoa Counsellors Office in Auckland without seeking advice from the Samoa Government or the Ministry of Health,” the report states.
Travellers from “high-risk” countries that had received the correct approvals by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had not, however, stopped for 28 days in New Zealand after leaving their countries, the report states.
Approached on Tuesday, Consul General Faolotoi Reupena Pogi for Samoa in New Zealand said his office did not approve for non-Samoans to travel.
“We did not issue any letters of endorsement to travel for non-Samoan citizens in the last flight,” he said in an email.”
The Samoa Observer approached the Disaster Advisory Committee, the National Emergency Operations Centre, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ministry of Health and the Government Press Secretariat via email shortly after 1.30pm on Tuesday.
None had responded by press time.
Despite the issues raised in the report, all three aircraft, two flights from American Samoa and one from New Zealand that arrived between 18 and 24 September “complied with Samoa’s current travel restrictions and entry requirements for the COVID-19.”
The Friday 18 flight had 293 passengers, who are all undergoing mandatory 14 days quarantine, and were processed by staff wearing personal protective equipment on arrival.
According to the report, 18 of those passengers were elderly and in wheelchairs but not accompanied by an able-bodied adult, which apparently slowed down the screening process.
The Travel Advisory says that passengers who are elderly with chronic medical conditions or special needs must be accompanied by an adult relative for both the flight and the quarantine period.
It is not clear whether the 18 wheelchair-bound passengers are accompanied in quarantine.
Two other flights returned eight Samoan citizens home from American Samoa, on 18 and 23 September, and they met all the health requirements to board and land in Faleolo International Airport. They are not undergoing quarantine.
The report urges: “Air New Zealand’s agent and the Samoa Counsellors Office in Auckland to thoroughly check the COVID tests and Medical Clearance report dates (should be 72 hours valid before boarding).”
It also recommends the flight agents to “align” with the Government’s requirements.
Air New Zealand’s media office did not respond to a request for comment.
To date, Samoa has processed 1,929 COVID-19 tests locally and returned no confirmed cases of COVID-19.