The first group of Marshall Islanders from a location with widespread Covid-19 could be repatriated later this month.
The groundwork for several hundred islanders stranded in the United States to return home could begin soon.
Government officials confirmed that planning was well underway with the aim of using United Airlines' October 30 flight from Honolulu to Kwajalein Atoll to repatriate a group of about 15 islanders, including the First Lady who has been stuck in Hawai'i since the borders were closed in early March.
To date, the Marshall Islands government had sponsored Air Marshall Islands charter flights to return several dozen Marshallese from Kosrae, Pohnpei and Kiribati - all coronavirus-free locations.
These Marshallese citizens went through a two-week quarantine at a Majuro facility managed by the Ministry of Health, which was also used to repatriate Marshallese fishermen from domestic fishing vessels.
In part because two fishermen have escaped from the quarantine facility and had to be apprehended by police, Majuro leaders had beseeched the national government to avoid bringing Marshallese from the US and other Covid-19 nations for quarantine in the capital.
Instead, the Marshall Islands turned to the US Army Garrison - Kwajalein Atoll (USAG-KA) to handle repatriation of the first group aiming to return in late October.
Repatriation of US Army base workers at Kwajalein Atoll had been ongoing since June, as the government and the Army agreed on a series of coronavirus prevention protocols - including multiple Covid-19 tests and extended quarantine periods.
A handful of non-base workers have also returned through the Army-managed 21-day quarantine at Kwajalein.
Health Minister Bruce Bilimon confirmed that planning for this first group was in progress. The repatriation plan still required Cabinet blessing.
The plan would require a quarantine period in Honolulu and Covid-19 testing prior to departure , and then a three-week quarantine at USAG-KA.
It was understood that this first group was expected to include a group of Marshallese referral patients who completed treatment in Hawai'i hospitals along with their escorts, First Lady Ginger Kabua, and a small number of others who have been stuck for months because of the border closure due to Covid-19.
If the plan moves ahead, the people who would be returning would pay for their own airfares, while the Marshall Islands government would be pay the costs for quarantine, according to an official at the Chief Secretary's office.
In the meantime, the weekly repatriation last week of Army base workers and a handful of non-based workers saw two passengers bumped from the weekly flight when they tested positive in Honolulu a day prior to departure to the Marshall Islands.
One intending returnee, a Marshallese mother and her infant baby, did not come with the group after they both tested positive while in quarantine in Hawai'i, according to the Ministry of Health and Human Services, which tracked the number of people being repatriated through USAG-KA.
Through September 22, 217 people had been repatriated with 44 still in quarantine as of last week. A total of 165 Army workers had been released following the 21-day quarantine and multiple Covid-19 tests that were negative. Eight non-USAG-KA workers - including US and Australian diplomatic staff - had successfully completed the quarantine at the Army base and had been released.
While the Marshall Islands was gearing up to bring its first group home from the US, neighboring Federated States of Micronesia intended to use repatriation of FSM citizens stranded in the Marshall Islands as an exercise to prepare for returning Micronesians in coronavirus-infected countries.
To date, the Marshall Islands and FSM were two of only about a dozen countries globally not to have a confirmed case of coronavirus.
FSM President David Panuelo said the FSM's first priority for repatriation was the estimated 40 Micronesians in the Marshall Islands that the FSM would use as an exercise to prepare for broader repatriation of its citizens in countries with Covid-19.
Panuelo described this as "the ultimate test in assessing the FSM's capacity to implement repatriation from Covid-19 affected jurisdictions, such as the US Territory of Guam."
Panuelo said the FSM would treat the Marshall Islands as a Covid-19 affected jurisdiction for this repatriation exercise so the FSM test its repatriation protocols in an actual return scenario but without the actual threat of the virus.
No date had been announced for the repatriation but it was expected to coincide with the one or two flights per month that United Airlines was currently operating that linked the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia.