• By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Pacific Island leaders appeal for calm amid two cases of suspected coronavirus in the region

Pacific Island leaders appeal to their panic-stricken communities for calm as they monitor the first two suspected cases of COVID-19 in the region — one in the Republic of Marshall Islands and another in Palau— where inadequate health care systems are dependent on foreign assistance.

RMI's Ministry of Health and Human Services said the "person under investigation is being treated and investigations are underway to determine if this is a confirmed case of COVID-19.”

No other details were available as of press time.

“Please note that a 'PUI' means that they have presented with some of the symptoms associated with COVID-19; it does not mean they have the disease,” the health agency said in a press statement, advising citizens to “remain calm and practice preventative measures.”

Earlier this week, Palau’s Ministry of Health disclosed that a 73-year-old woman, who came to Palau with a visiting medical team from the U.S., had "underlying conditions" and was in isolation at the Belau National Hospital.

Palau President Tommy Remengesau Jr. reassured his citizens that the government, in partnership with the Center for Disease Control, is equipped to manage the situation should the patient receive a positive test.

“As in so many situations like this, fear, not a germ, is our biggest enemy," Remengesau said.

The death toll from coronavirus has passed 3,000 worldwide, including the United States which has reported 11 deaths as of Thursday.

Pacific Island countries and territories are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases as highlighted by the measles and dengue outbreaks late last year. "Considering the challenges faced by the Pacific such as vast distances, dispersed and isolated islands and populations, and limited resources, even a small number of cases could quickly cause significant strain on health systems,” said Dr. Corinne Capuano, director of the World Health Organization's Pacific technical support.

On Guam, local officials are also monitoring the neighboring islands in the CNMI.

“Although the person did not meet the full case definition of a PUI, a sample was sent for testing,” a press release Adelup said. “The Guam community is reminded that the PUIs in Palau, RMI and CNMI have not been confirmed to have COVID-19 at this time.”

Local officials reassured the community that there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 and no people who meet the CDC criteria for PUI on Guam.

At this stage, prevention is the Pacific Island region's only defense from a possible coronavirus outbreak, the threat of which has brought local communities to a standstill.

Travel restrictions remain in place while regional and community events have either been canceled or postpone.

Hawaii has postponed the 13th Festival of the Pacific Arts & Culture, which was to be held from June 10 to 21 and expected to draw thousands delegates.

The 2020 United Airlines Guam Marathon, originally scheduled for April, 5, has been postponed to Sept. 13.

“The health and safety of our residents and visitors remains our top priority,” said GVB president and CEO Pilar Laguaña. “We have suspended event sponsorship support and postponed our signature events until the global climate of COVID-19 improves. We will continue to work closely with our partners and look forward to supporting these events at a better time.”

Other affected events include Guam Swimming Federation Micronesian Swimming Championships, 40th APL Smokin’ Wheels, Guam Ko’ko’ Kids Fest (postponed until further notice), Guam Micronesia Island Fair (postponed until further notice), Travel Talks Digital Global Summit (postponed until further notice). The Japan Club of Guam’s annual arts and crafts fair, originally scheduled for March 8, has been moved to March 15.

Meanwhile, Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero welcomed the U.S. House of Representatives’ passage of an $8.3 billion emergency package to help federal entities, states, and territories prepare for and combat the spread of COVID-19.

The measure includes $2.2 billion to help federal state, and territorial public health agencies prepare for a response to coronavirus, including funds for lab testing, infection control, and tracing individuals who might have had contact with infected people. The bill also reimburses state and local governments for costs they have already incurred.

The funding will provide resources for the Infectious Diseases Rapid Response Fund as well as $300 million for global health efforts by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. About $1 billion will pay for pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, including masks and protective equipment for workers. The remaining package is allocated to research.

In the CNMI, Gov. Ralph Torres issued an executive order declaring a price freeze to protect CNMI residents during the COVID-19 outbreak and the unexpected economic downturn.

“Protecting the health and safety of our residents includes protecting their ability to provide for their families during this unanticipated economic downturn as a result of the coronavirus,” Torres said.

“We are experiencing unprecedented economic circumstances that affect everyone, and as governor, it is our obligation to protect the spending power of our residents so we can feed our families and make ends meet during these difficult times ahead. Now more than ever is the time to come together as one Commonwealth and look out for each other,” Torres added.

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