Covid-19 reduces army repatriation group to Marshall Islands

10:43 am on 24 July 2020

Covid-19 exposure in Hawaii reduced this week's US Army repatriation group to the Marshall Islands from 15 to 11, according to health authorities in Majuro.

The first group of Marshallese to be repatriated through the US Army base on Kwajalein Atoll in May were followed by 77 base workers since June 9.

The first group of Marshallese to be repatriated through the US Army base on Kwajalein Atoll in May were followed by 77 base workers since June 9. Photo: Hilary Hosia

Since 9 June, the US Army Garrison, Kwajalein Atoll, (USAG-KA), had returned small groups of stranded base workers from the United States who followed strict Covid-19 testing rules and a 21-day quarantine at the Kwajalein missile range base after arrival in the Marshall Islands.

Earlier this week, USAG-KA had its first long-distance brush with the coronavirus when one of the 15 base workers scheduled to return this week tested positive for Covid-19 in Honolulu, prior to departing for Kwajalein.

Health Minister Bruce Bilimon said contact tracing by army authorities identified three others in the intending repatriation group to have had contact with the person who was Covid-19 positive.

As a result, only 11 of the 15 base workers scheduled to arrive on Tuesday to begin a 21-day quarantine at the base actually came to Kwajalein on a military transport flight.

This development sparked the government's Cabinet to hold a special meeting to review information on the situation provided by US authorities. The special Cabinet meeting generated discussion about possible additional requirements for USAG-KA workers being repatriated.

"We are looking at additional measures," Bilimon said. "My medical people are looking at new protocols."

Marshall Islands health authorities and army officials held talks Wednesday and are continuing to review protocols for the ongoing repatriation.

Beginning 9 June and continuing through Tuesday this week, seven groups of USAG-KA workers had come into Kwajalein on weekly military flights. They were all tested for Covid-19 in Honolulu prior to departure, tested on arrival at USAG-KA before they went into 21-day quarantine at the base with additional tests, including a final Covid-19 test prior to release.

A total of 84 USAG-KA workers were scheduled to arrive in the seven groups since 9 June and 77 actually arrived, according to Ministry of Health and Human Services statistics.

The difference in the actual arrival number reflected three who did not come in as scheduled in the first and fourth groups, and the four who were dropped this week because of Covid-19 exposure.

Army base commander Colonel Jeremy Bartel said prior to the start of the repatriation programme that about 20 percent of the army's workforce was stuck in the US since the Marshall Islands closed its borders to inbound travel on 8 March.

He estimated the need to bring in about 280 essential workers. Bilimon said the army had a "robust testing program in place and the quarantine in Kwajalein is good".

The health minister added that the Marshall Islands needed to be "cautious and vigilant" about preventing Covid-19 getting into the country.

In an unrelated repatriation plan, the Marshall Islands government is chartering an Air Marshall Islands flight to bring home nine Marshallese stuck in Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia because of the Covid-19 travel ban.

The special flight is scheduled for July 27. All nine are residents of Ebeye, so the flight will return them to Kwajalein for a quarantine period before they will be released to return to Ebeye, said Bilimon.

There have been no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Kosrae or any of the other Federated States of Micronesia states.

Marshall Islands Health Minister, Bruce Bilimon

Marshall Islands Health Minister, Bruce Bilimon Photo: Taiwan Embassy