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  • By Bea Cabrera

On top of Covid-19: How the CNMI manages to keep coronavirus under control

Saipan— When the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China was brought to light around the world in January, the CNMI government knew it was a serious threat to the people and economy. With global cases and deaths rising, the CNMI did not procrastinate. Several public meetings among stakeholders and community members were held to develop emergency response and prevention measures.

The nosedive of CNMI tourism— the lifeblood of the local economy — was expected as a result of the pandemic, but Gov. Ralph DLG Torres had to make a choice. “Nothing can compensate for the health of CNMI residents,” he said.

The day after Guam announced its first three Covid-19 positive cases on March 15, Torres declared the CNMI under a state of significant emergency and state of public health emergency, imposing restrictions on business operations and curfews. He also formed the CNMI Covid-19 Task Force. Mass testing began in April.

Located 128 miles from Guam — now the Pacific island region’s hotspot — the CNMI has since kept the Covid-19 at a manageable level and weighed down community transmission. The bulk of its positive cases were travel related.

The CNMI had 104 Covid-19 positive cases and two deaths as of Nov. 21. Numbers are still expected to rise but nowhere close to the earlier projection. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s forecast, the CNMI would have 3,000 Covid-19 cases by June.

While raising the travel alert for Guam from level 3 to level 4 on Nov. 21, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention eased the travel restrictions for the CNMI, whose risk category has been downgraded from level 2 to level 1, which corresponds to “low” risk.

“We try our very best and we have been doing it successfully to capture the ones at the border and isolate them from the community. But the science of it keeps changing and until there is a vaccine and even when there is a vaccine, we still have to practice the three Ws— wear a mask, wash hands and watch your distance,” said Esther Muna, CEO of the Commonwealth Healthcare Community Corp.

“I have to say that everyone in the community has been really good at making sure that we contain it. Even without a community transmission, people still wear masks, wash or sanitize hands regularly and practice social distancing. We need to continue to do these things and don’t allow pandemic fatigue to get to you because we need to do this,” she added.

Part of the CNMI’s success in controlling the Covid-19 spread is the residents’ willing compliance with the public health guidance.

“We have a lot of elders on island and many people that are stricken with diabetes, high blood and other health conditions. That makes a majority of our community susceptible to the virus,” said Janice Pangelinan, a resident of Papago.

“When the Centers for Disease Control announced the outbreak in March, I was really scared for the CNMI. Saipan has 60,000 people, Tinian less than 5,000 people and Rota with 3,000 people and I thought, if the virus reaches our islands, we will be all wiped out and no one will be left,” Pangelinan said.

Painting a ghost-town scenario, she added, “People will flee the islands and the ones who will be left here are the people who cannot afford to live anywhere else. I am glad that federal help that came at the right time, the CNMI government literally took charge and the community is very close that we don’t want to lose any family members or friends to this virus.”

Part of CNMI Covid-19 check is to put the islands under a color scheme that informs the community of its vulnerability to the virus. The colors include red, orange, yellow, blue and green where “Level Red” means the least safe and “Level Green” is the safest.

Currently, the CNMI is under “Level Blue,” that means a partial resumption of international flights, increased building occupancy to allow establishments to open up to 75 percent of their original capacity, curfew is now from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m., partial restaurant and bar operations are now permitted at 50 percent of their originally permitted occupancy limit, and dine-in customers are allowed.

Saipan Chamber of Commerce president Velma Palacios said the islands won’t be able to reopen tourism until the CNMI hit the safest level. “I think the right view is to focus and strengthen the domestic economy right now. Most businesses are still trying to get back to their routine after being closed for two or three months. I know many are also working on their loans,” she said.

“Making the domestic economy also means bringing back workers to their jobs and helping those who were displaced for a while. The loans and monetary assistance will give people spending power and use it in the community,” she said.

Local businesses are thriving as it abides by CDC health and safety regulations and Covid19 Task Force protocols. Imelda Estolas, a cashier at KS Market in Garapan, is protected by a plastic cover that separates her from the customers. “Knowing how serious and lethal this virus is, I’m afraid of course. If I had a choice, I’d rather be in home quarantine, but I know that this is the time that I am needed the most,” she said

“People need food and other goods and this is what drives me to come here, to wear my mask, masks and open the grocery. Nearby groceries have been closed since the outbreak,” she added.

Other businesses that catered to tourists decided to switch to a different venture. Husband and wife team Park Jung Jae and Bonnie Kim used to own a dive shop along Beach Road. “Since no tourists are coming, we have to make a decision to change our business,” Park said.

The couple opened Bonnie’s Kitchen. “Honestly, I did not know anything about Texas-style barbeque,” Park said. “For many weeks, I studied the art of Texas-style barbeque through YouTube and cookbooks. There was a lot of trial and error for sure but it was a learning process and when we were ready, we opened Bonnie’s Kitchen.”

Warren Villagomez, who heads the Covid-19 Task Force, said the CNMI is one of the beneficiaries of the early allocation of Pfizer vaccines once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives the vaccine the required Emergency Use Authorization.

But with or without the vaccine, Muna said the people should not put their guards down. “Although there is no community transmission, as long as there is incoming travel, there’s going to be that threat,” she said. “The mainland is suffering from surging numbers of Covid-19 cases that is why even without community detection, we still need to do our job, we still need to do follow restrictions and regulations, but still at the end of the day, our goal is to keep everybody safe.”

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