Marshall Islands announces first suspected Covid-19 patient

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MAJURO — The Ministry of Health Thursday announced its first suspected case of the coronavirus Covid-19, bringing to four the Pacific islands that have identified suspected cases of the rapidly spreading illness.

An eight-room isolation facility for Covid-19 patients began construction last Saturday and is on a fast-track for completion in 30 days, according to health authorities in Majuro.  Photo by Jack Niedenthal

The 66-year-old male was quarantined at Majuro hospital Thursday and is now identified by health authorities as a “patient under investigation” or PUI, said Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal in a statement. Niedenthal also called for donor assistance to provide laboratory-testing equipment so the islands have the ability to test for the coronavirus locally.

“This case is being treated and investigations are underway, including laboratory testing, to determine if this is a confirmed case of Covid-19,” Niedenthal said. “The public is advised to remain calm and practice preventative measures.”

He explained that a “person under investigation” designation only means they have presented with some of the symptoms associated with Covid-19. “It does not mean they have the disease,” he added.

The individual, who is in quarantine at Majuro hospital, is a local resident who recently returned to Majuro from the U.S. state of Washington, which is in the midst of a Covid-19 outbreak. Authorities in Washington recently declared a state of health emergency. Covid-19 claimed 10 lives in Washington through Thursday this week.

Palau announced its first suspected case Tuesday this week, a 73-year-old female with an underlying health condition who traveled from the U.S. state of Oregon with a medical mission. She is currently isolated and under treatment at Belau National Hospital in Koror awaiting the results of testing from an off-island laboratory. And both Fiji and Tonga have identified possible cases of Covid-19.

Most islands are stymied from a quick response to suspected cases by lack of laboratory equipment to test for the Covid-19 virus.

“We need lab testing capabilities and the expertise to set it up, like tomorrow, that should be priority number one,” said Niedenthal earlier this week. He has been communicating this need for the U.S.-affiliated islands including the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Interior Department and the World Health Organization for the past several weeks.

Niedenthal said these organizations are providing other assistance. But testing equipment is critical to fast diagnosis of possible coronavirus cases.

“If we know in a timely manner what we are dealing with here that would help us manage this situation much more effectively,” he said.

The earliest the Marshall Islands will be able to confirm if the current patient under investigation has the coronavirus is expected to be Saturday or Sunday, depending on how quickly a Hawaii laboratory can complete the test result. Palau is similarly waiting for an off-island laboratory result to determine if the 73-year-old patient in Belau National Hospital has Covid-19.