The Marshall Islands has become the first independent nation in the Pacific region to begin Covid-19 vaccinations, with high-ranking leaders and Ministry of Health doctors and nurses being administered US-provided medicine.
The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) delivered an initial batch of 1200 vaccines to Majuro on Tuesday morning and the Ministry of Health wasted little time rolling out the vaccine in the afternoon.
“We are getting vaccinated at the same time as people in the United States,” Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal said.
“It is a great thing the US government is doing for us. This is a great day for all of us.”
Taiwan Ambassador Jeffrey Hsiao was at the vaccine launch. “The worst of times could become the best of times,” he said.
“With the arrival of the vaccines, the Marshall Islands is passing out of darkness into hope for the New Year.”
The US government also delivered a similar number of vaccines to the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. Both countries will launch their Covid vaccine drives in January.
All three nations that share a free association relationship with Washington chose the Moderna brand vaccine over Pfizer because it was logistically easier for these remote islands to handle, Niedenthal said.
The only other islands in the region to begin administering Covid vaccines are the US-affiliated islands of Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, which started their Covid immunization programs in mid-December.
Marshall Islands Parliament Speaker Kenneth Kedi, Health Minister Bruce Bilimon, High Court Chief Justice Carl Ingram, president of the United Church of Christ Rev. Palukne Johnny, and the head of the Council of Irooj (Chiefs) paramount chief Kotak Loeak were the first five people to receive the vaccinations.
They were quickly followed by Niedenthal and public health doctors and nurses who are the top priority for the initial phase of the vaccination program.
“Health care workers and other frontliners and the elderly will also receive the vaccine first,” Niedenthal said.
Bilimon said the Covid pandemic showed the Ministry of Health what it had to do to improve health care-wise in the country.
“It was the best time to prepare the hospital, to be ready for the future,” he said
Niedenthal, representatives of the US and Taiwan, which have both supported Covid prevention work in the islands, and Bilimon emphasised the cooperation in the country and with donors that has helped to keep the country Covid-free.
Niedenthal acknowledged that they had dealt with three Covid positive cases as part of repatriation quarantine with no community transmission.
“This is a success,” he said. “We caught those cases as part of our Covid protocols.”
Deputy Health Secretary Mailynn Lang said it had now been 40 days since the last positive “border” case, demonstrating that the country was Covid-free. “Let’s keep it that way,” she said.
The Marshall Islands closed its border in early March when few other nations had taken this drastic measure.
When the country shut its borders, the World Health Organization said border closures were not effective and other countries questioned the move, said Niedenthal.
“But within two weeks, others followed us,” he said.
The border closure has been the key to keeping the Marshall Islands as one of only a handful of nations that have not had community transmission of Covid-19.
Niedenthal said another 6000 doses of the Moderna vaccine were scheduled to be provided by the US in January, with more to follow, until the adult population of 55,000 was vaccinated.
“In the not too near future anyone who wants to get vaccinated above the age of 18 will get the opportunity to be vaccinated,” Niedenthal said.
“We are also in negotiations with Operation Warp Speed and the US CDC to prioritize our very vulnerable Marshall Islands citizens living in the US to get them vaccinated as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, authorities in Fiji have confirmed another three cases of Covid-19, all of them in border quarantine.
Two people arrived from New Delihi, on 21 December and one from England.
Fiji has had 49 cases of the coronavirus since March, most of them in quarantine.
It has been 255 days since the last case was detected in the community.