Marshalls expect ventilators, first Covid-19 test gear

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MAJURO — For weeks, health authorities in the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau have been lobbying the United States to provide Covid-19 coronavirus test kits and personal protection equipment or PPE for medical staff.

“All freely associated state health secretaries told the Centers for Disease Control we don’t want money, we want Covid-19 testing capability on island,” said Marshall Islands Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal Friday. “This is how Asian countries beat it.”

Responding to these appeals for local testing capability, the U.S. Interior Department announced an emergency grant of $858,924 to procure GeneXpert testing kits and a machine for the U.S. Pacific territories and Freely Associated States so that they may now conduct on-island testing during the Covid-19 pandemic, said Douglas Domenech, Assistant Secretary of Interior for Insular and International Affairs.

This will cover testing equipment and supplies for American Samoa, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, said Domenech.

In attempting to ready two woefully under-provisioned hospitals for future Covid-19 patients needing intensive care, the health ministry had earlier this year ordered eight new ventilators. But the earliest a vendor could deliver the ordered ventilators was July, according to Niedenthal. So the Marshall Islands turned to a vendor in its diplomatic ally Taiwan and now expect 10 ventilators to arrive in a week’s time, he said. Currently, said Niedenthal, Majuro hospital has only three ventilators and Ebeye hospital has two.

The Marshall Islands closed its borders to incoming airline passengers on March 8 and since March 21, when United Airlines suspended regular flights, the country has had no international air service.  Photo by Giff Johnson

Meanwhile, the Marshall Islands shutdown of passenger arrivals on airplanes over three weeks ago has stranded some Marshall Islands citizens and residents in various locations. But for the 55,000 residents in the country, the border lockdown has been a welcome development when viewing the ongoing and worsening Covid-19 coronavirus crisis in many nations, including island neighbors.

The country is just emerging from an eight-month long dengue fever outbreak that through last weekend had infected over 3,200 people. If last year’s government ban on travel to remote outer islands because of the dengue fever outbreak in the two urban centers proved anything it is that islands that had no visitors developed no dengue.

The National Disaster Committee has repeatedly approved updated travel advisories, following the advice of its health authorities. The goal has been to delay Covid-19 arrival in the country, buying time by for building and outfitting isolation wards, importing additional ventilators in anticipation of critically ill patients, stocking up on personal protection equipment for health workers, and gaining local capability to perform Covid-19 testing, said Niedenthal.

Both “persons under investigation” for Covid-19, who arrived in Marshall Islands before the travel ban went into effect March 8, subsequently tested negative for the virus through off-island testing.

To date, there have been no confirmed Covid-19 cases in the Marshall Islands. “178 countries now have this disease and we’re not one of them,” Niedenthal told the Chamber of Commerce this past week.

The border shutdown and the global impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has hurt the country economically, with tourism and service industry workers being laid off or their hours reduced. In response to an appeal last week from Parliament Speaker Kenneth Kedi, local banks have started announcing three-month holidays on payment of loans. One bank announced it is reducing its interest rates while the Covid-19 emergency lasts.

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