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RMI reports first coronavirus death; Marshallese worried over Covid spike

The Majuro hospital is now closed to the public. Photo courtesy of Marshall Islands Journal

By Sylvester Kajur

Majuro— After two years of being a coronavirus-free country, the Marshall Islands has moved into the “red” category and reported its first Covid death on Tuesday.

The number of active Covid cases has gone up to 54 since the first community transmissions were detected Monday.

Despite the government's public advice not to panic, residents of Majuro are extremely worried.

The source of the spread is still unclear. The rules outlined in the roadmap for re-opening currently require 10 days of government-managed quarantine prior to release. But the six people who tested positive Monday had "no travel history, no contact with anyone who was in quarantine," according to Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal.

Lab tests showed those in quarantine were infected with the BA.5 variant, and the government is currently working on that assumption for community cases.

But now Niedenthal also has Covid. According to one government source, who asked not to be named, 85 percent of the Ministry of Health and Human Services staff have also tested positive.

Another source told The Pacific Island Times that the emergency section was closed down Monday night while all nurses and medical staff were tested. According to the source, four staff tested positive, and Niedenthal became number 11. On his Facebook page, Niedenthal posted, “I tested positive upon arrival at my house this evening (before I went inside). So for the next 5 days I will be operating from my house. I got my second booster 2 weeks ago when we heard about the outbreak.” Niedenthal, like most in the RMI, is experiencing mild symptoms.

Some have been prescribed PaxLovid due to their age and medical comorbidities.

The announcement and notices went viral on social media immediately.

The government also announced a pause in travel by plane or ship to the outer islands in hopes of restricting the spread to places where only basic medical care services are available. But international borders are staying open for now and a new repatriation flight from Honolulu is due to arrive on Aug. 16.

For those travelers, the government is recommending a rapid antigen test rather than a PCR test prior to their departure. Upon arrival, a positive PCR test will result in a five-day isolation period. The health department moved quickly Monday night to set up the previously planned "test and treat" facilities in designated locations.

Testing areas have been set up at the Marshall Islands High School to cater to the Rita population, where the first cases were detected. Some were being set up at Zedkaia tennis court as well, but only a limited number of tests were carried out Tuesday night. The number of Covid tests ordered on Amazon in the RMI has also skyrocketed. Most of the cases will be in the three largest urban centers of Majuro, Ebeye and Kwajalein. In Majuro especially, overcrowding is common with households of up to seven or eight people. The Marshall Islands has a high vaccination rate, but it won’t be enough. Many feel a lockdown is inevitable. Teachers at CMI and USP, the two universities in the RMI, are both making plans to move online immediately.

One teacher said their department had seriously discussed pausing swimming classes. The service industries, already struggling from border closures, could be the hardest hit. The government will hold a daily press briefing to provide Covid updates. These can be viewed on its Facebook pages live as well as on local radio. While businesses are normally operating, public gatherings now require face masks. Access to the Emergency Room is being restricted for the next three months and its health services reorientated.

The Majuro hospital is now closed to the public.

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