Increase vaccination, improve threat response vital: experts

Two medical experts say high vaccination rates in Samoa and New Zealand and an effective COVID-19 infection response system are key to the opening of a travel bubble between the two countries.

University of Auckland’s Dr Helen Petousis-Harris and infectious disease expert, Associate Professor Dr Siouxsie Wiles said in separate interviews with the Samoa Observer that a Samoa–New Zealand travel bubble is a good idea and workable, but a number of boxes have to be ticked first by the local authorities before the Governments of both countries should agree to a deal.

Dr Petousis-Harris said her immediate concern is the current vaccination rates for both countries, which she says needs to increase in order to avoid the exporting of diseases like measles in 2019 which led to an outbreak. 

“I would love to see a travel bubble between our two nations. However, I would like to see higher vaccine uptake in both countries before this happens,” she said.

“It would be terrible if New Zealand exported a case to Samoa as they did with the measles in 2019. 

“We can also see the devastating consequences of the Delta variant in Fiji at the moment.

“There is no COVID-19 in the community in New Zealand and the vaccination programme is ramping up fast. However, we are still at risk of an outbreak.

“I think it would be ideal for Samoa to vaccinate more people first and perhaps consider it a requirement for visitors to have been vaccinated.”

Data released by Samoa’s Ministry of Health show that 21.4 per cent of the country’s eligible population have been vaccinated with the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine or 26,036 people.

As for Dr Wiles, she is of the view that the travel bubble between the two countries is viable, but how quick local authorities respond upon the discovery of a coronavirus threat is vital.

“Opening a travel bubble with New Zealand when only 21.4 [per cent] of Samoa’s eligible population is obviously more risky than doing so when almost all are vaccinated,” she said.

“But that doesn’t mean that a travel bubble is unworkable.

“The key will be for the travel bubble to be paused as soon as a case was found in the community in New Zealand to minimise the chances of infected travellers travelling to Samoa, and immediate restrictions placed on people’s ability to gather and move within Samoa as well as widespread testing, contact tracing, and isolation should a case be identified there.

“We’ve seen with the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, just how bad things can get if action isn’t taken immediately to stamp out any cases in the community.”

Last week, the Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) Government announced the relaxing of state of emergency restrictions, including extended operating hours for the inter-island ferry and business trading hours. 

The changes outlined in a Cabinet Directive (21)23 also referred to talks with the Government of New Zealand to implement a travel bubble with Samoa’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade tasked to work on the initiative.

Early this week on Monday the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern announced they will allow seasonal workers from Samoa to enter New Zealand without having to undergo the two weeks’ mandatory quarantine.

The policy change only applies to workers who are part of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (R.S.E.) scheme and include workers from Tonga and Vanuatu.

Ms Ardern said the policy shift would have the dual advantage of freeing up quarantine space in the country but also providing the agricultural sector with much-needed labour.

The decision will not come into effect immediately with the New Zealand Prime Minister saying it had only been agreed “in principle” by the New Zealand Government’s Cabinet with a view to being implemented by September this year.

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