Race to send vaccines and medical aid as COVID-19 reaches Pacific islands

By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Pacific island nations that are among the last places in the world to be hit by the coronavirus pandemic are seeing rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, prompting a rush for supplies of vaccines, medical teams and food aid.

Concern over the detection of the coronavirus in tsunami-hit Tonga, where a new case was recorded on Friday, has been heightened by thousands of infections that have swept through neighboring Pacific islands.

In the Solomon Islands, where riots, unrelated to the pandemic, saw buildings in the capital, Honiara, burn in November, an outbreak of the Delta strain with 2,357 cases has overwhelmed the health system, according to news agencies. aid.

Australia has sent four defense flights to the Solomon Islands in the past two weeks with a medical team, vaccines and emergency food for hospital patients and tens of thousands of households.

Katie Greenwood, head of delegation for the International Federation of the Pacific Red Cross, said cases had taken off quickly in the Solomon Islands, where just 11% of the population was fully immunized.

“People are scared and it affects everyone,” she said.

“Fragile health systems are overwhelmed very quickly.”

The Solomon Islands government has reported 21 COVID deaths and imposed movement restrictions.

Transform Aqorau, a professor at the National University of the Solomon Islands, said Honiara was closed, causing a shortage of fresh food, and he ate from a plant in his garden.

“They blocked the entrance to Honiara, vendors from outside cannot enter,” he told Reuters by telephone.

He credited essential workers for keeping electricity and water running, despite the growing number of employees testing positive and having to self-isolate.

The vaccination rush has also caused overcrowding with “a high level of lack of social distancing obedience”, he said.

Vaccination sites closed on Wednesday to prevent the spread of the virus to health workers and the public, the health ministry said in a statement, adding that it would “reset” distribution.

An Australian medical team has also been dispatched to Kiribati, which has 913 cases after allowing a flight with returning nationals to land in January, its first outbreak since border restrictions were lifted.

Palau, where 99% of the population of 18,000 is vaccinated, recorded 2,115 cases of COVID-19 in a month.

Tonga recorded its first community transition of COVID-19 on Tuesday, after two workers at a freight dock became infected. There are now five cases.

An influx of tsunami aid brought in by foreign navy ships was delivered without contact with Tongans, and the pallets are quarantined for 72 hours.

Greenwood said the Pacific Islands had worked hard for two years to keep COVID out, but the new strains were more virulent and harder to detect. “There may be a small crack in the armor that allows COVID to enter,” she said.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Robert Birsel)