BY GIFF JOHNSON
Marshall Islands Correspondent
MAJURO, Marshall Islands — In the first three weeks of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the Marshall Islands, more than 3,000 people were vaccinated. This included healthcare staff and other “front line” workers as well as members of the public.
Health Secretary Jack Niedenthal hailed the support shown for the vaccine — not only in the Marshall Islands but also in the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. All three freely associated states are being provided Moderna brand COVID vaccines by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and are actively rolling out vaccination programs since the New Year.
On a per capita basis, the islands have higher vaccine rates than many states in the United States, Niedenthal said
The Marshall Islands and its two neighboring countries in the north are all moving ahead quickly with their vaccine programs, said Niedenthal, who each week participates in a call involving health officials from all U.S.-affiliated islands in the region as well as U.S. authorities.
“The freely associated states have some of the highest vaccine rates compared to the United States,” Niedenthal said. “We take the disease seriously.”
The U.S. government provided the Marshall Islands with 13,600 doses in three batches starting at the end of December and continuing in early January. As each person requires two shots, this is enough to vaccinate 6,800 people. Health authorities anticipate more vaccines arriving in February.
On Jan. 26, a group of high-level government officials and dozens of frontline workers received their second vaccine in Majuro. They had initially been vaccinated Dec. 29.
Since mid-January, the Ministry of Health and Human Services moved from offering vaccines only to people 60 and up to anyone 40 and above. The eligibility age is expected to be further dropped with the arrival of more vaccines in February.
At Ebeye, the second major urban center in the country, Public Health nurses began Jan. 25 vaccinating the 1,000 Marshall Islanders who work for the U.S. Army at the Kwajalein missile range.
Niedenthal indicated that the U.S. government, which is providing the vaccines, is looking at usage rates in all states and U.S.-affiliated islands. “How quickly we use the vaccines determines the number we receive,” he said.
Meanwhile, the second group of Marshallese being repatriated from the United States arrived at the U.S. Army base for three weeks of quarantine Jan. 16. A total of 40 Marshallese came into Kwajalein on the one United Airlines flight provided in January. They were tested for COVID Jan. 24 and all tests were negative, according to the Ministry of Health. A third group is scheduled to arrive at Kwajalein for three weeks of quarantine in mid-February, using the single United flight for the month.
The availability of the vaccine has so far not changed any of the border restrictions set in place to prevent COVID from entering Marshall Islands. The country’s border remains closed and is unlikely to open in the near future.
Nevertheless, repatriation of both Marshallese and American base workers continues through a system of quarantine at Kwajalein. Although one American base worker and two Marshallese tested positive while in quarantine at Kwajalein, these three cases were managed in quarantine with no community spread. They all tested negative prior to their release. mbj