A gloomy picture at GVB of fewer visitors and lack of funding and certification

While Guam has yet to verify the appearance of the omicron variant at its shores, the island still stands to lose 38,400 airline seats, along with 14,000 visitors due to cancellations between January and March, following more cancellations in December, according to Gerald S.A. Perez, vice president of the Guam Visitors Bureau in a Jan. 13 board of directors meeting.

According to the board, the new estimate of arrivals from South Korea alone are 9,281 airline seats in January and 11,344 in February.

In addition, programs that have been designed to entice more visitors are experiencing issues as well. The Safe Travel program, which certifies businesses throughout the island, lost all certifications at the end of 2021, but GVB is working on getting the certifications renewed.

The PCR testing for visitors before returning to their home countries is out of funding as well, after doing 5,748 tests during the initial program launch from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31. GVB is looking for another funding source.

“We can’t sustain this program unless additional funding is found, and we’re in a difficult situation right now, with the omicron situation right now,” Perez said.

In other GVB news, the board announces that for 2021, the island saw 78,514 arrivals, which is a 76% decrease from the previous year. However, just between the months of October and December of last year, there was a 282% increase of arrivals from 2020.


Guam COVID surge demographic traced to age-groups, US military

Ann Pobutsky, Guam’s territorial epidemiologist, during a Jan. 14 Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services press conference, said the recent COVID surge on island can be traced back to middle age brackets of residents.

“It’s the 18 to 36 age group driving the spike, followed by teenagers. The case rate among the elderly is low, which is good.”

Additionally, Pubutsky said that anywhere between a fourth and a half of recent cases on island can be attributed to the Department of Defense, active-duty military and families, and anyone else who would be getting tested at the DoD locations.

Interim Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Leon Guerrero said the cause of the recent uptick in military cases is speculated to be a lack of mask mandate up until the mandate was reinstated in December.

“We expected the initial part of the surge to be like this,” Dr. Leon Guerrero said. “The omicron is so easily spread, and any regulations from the beginning of the pandemic are still very applicable.”

As far as COVID case reporting goes, Pobutsky said the CAR score is no longer valid and will be omitted from future reporting.

In other DPHSS news, the Guam COVID Alert application has been suspended.


CNMI sees COVID numbers increase

While the NMI has no Omicron cases according to Esther L. Muna, CEO of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp., COVID positive cases have spread to Tinian and as of Jan. 14 rose to eight. Rota has six positive cases.

An additional 51 cases were announced Jan. 13 by CHCC. Stephanie Kern-Allely, regional epidemiologist, said, “A lot of our cases are reporting household transmission.” The NMI is able to give monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID in Tinian and Rota, but if a patient needed a ventilator that would only be possible at the Commonwealth Healthcare Center in Saipan.


US government focused on COVID testing, test kits shortage in the market

Under guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services which kick in Jan. 15, private insurers are required to reimburse individuals for the cost of at-home COVID-19 testing – up to eight at-home tests per plan enrollee every 30 days. Private insurers may use direct coverage or reimbursement. The legislation applies also to the territories. Test kits are supposed to be mailed to households.

The U.S. Department of Defense also announced Jan. 14 CHamoru Standard Time it is

purchasing a combined total of 380 million over the counter COVID-19 test kit from Abbott Rapid Dx North America, LLC of Orlando, Fla., iHealth Lab Inc. of Mountain View, Calif.), and Roche Diagnostics Corp. “This effort supports the president’s plan to deliver 500 million free at-home COVID-19 tests to the nation in response to the Omicron variant,” DoD said in the release. 

 Additional awards include $51.6 million to Goldbelt Security LLC of Juneau, Alaska.

The federal orders are already causing a shortage of test kits in the market, according to Journal sources, to include in Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Esther L. Muna, CEO of the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp. said that the NMI is awaiting home testing kits since November.

“We’ve been ordering a lot of these. … The test kits we have are point-of-care.”

Muna said the test kits are available through retail. “The pharmacies sell them” she said. Though she described the cost as reasonable, she said, “Some people can’t afford them.”

In the U.S. mainland, the shortage of at-home test kits is already becoming apparent. Walmart is out of stock of five of the six most economical at home test kit lines as at Jan. 14; Amazon was out of stock of all seven.  

Testing centers in Guam have seen long lines the week of Jan. 10 as COVID has surged on the island.


Raceway Park changes name, image, will partner with military museum foundation

The Guam Greyhound Raceway Park in Tamuning announced Jan. 14 its name-change to Freedom Park, a partnership with the Pacific War Museum Foundation and development plans.

The Pacific War Museum opened in 2008 according to Journal files, with exhibits related to the U.S. military in the Pacific theater of World War II with a focus on the U.S. Marines. The late John Gerber, a Marine Corps Vietnam War veteran established the foundation and its museum in Halsey Street in Maina.

The Pacific War Museum wings were built of jetways salvaged from the A. B. Won Pat International Airport, Guam after Supertyphoon Pongsona hit the island on Dec. 8, 2002, and damaged jetway supports.  Jetways are the corridors through which passengers access planes from a terminal. “They’re a lot stronger than a container would be,” Gerber told the Journal at the time.

The rear and roof of the museum was made from six 55-foot beams and a ramp commissioned for the airport’s May 2002 Birdman Rally held in Tumon Bay. Additionally, the museum featured moisture-proof lights rescued from the U.S. military’s former Naval Telecommunications galley. Gerber received support from local companies for the museum – with a donation of concrete from Hawaiian Rock and sandblasting and painting from Smithbridge Guam among other donations.

It is not known if the exhibits or also the building will move to the property.

Bartley A. Jackson, vice president of Bridge Capital LLC, which does business as the property in Tamuning – which is among other business units of Bridge Capital in Guam and Saipan, said it has been more than 13 years since the last greyhound race. “We are excited to introduce Freedom Park to the island of Guam,” he said.

The new name represents the development theme for the “new attractions” set to launch, the release said. These include “a children’s playground, a safe walking park, a world class museum, food and beverage outlets and much, much more,” the release said.

Aside from the greyhound racetrack – which closed in November 2008 with the 150 dogs being given away or shipped to the U.S. mainland through rescue efforts, there was a campaign to legalize slot machine gambling at the property in 2006, according to Journal files. The site has also hosted bingo games, which began in 2008, according to Journal files.

The park was the site of a Rotary District 2750 conference in 2009, attracting members of clubs in Micronesia and Japan, according to Journal files.   

Bridge Capital – which also does business in the Northern Mariana Islands – also owns the adjacent Perlas Courte Condominiums, according to Journal files. The condominiums were upgraded after the purchase, according to Journal files. Forty-six units of the 66 units at Perlas Courte Condominiums in Tamuning were offered for sale for $9.95 million in 2008, according to Journal files.


NMI government reorganizing IT; updates on grants

Clifford H. Aldan, chief information officer at the Office of Information Technology in the Department of Finance has several initiatives underway to improve IT within the Northern Mariana Islands government through his office, after his appointment in June 2021.

“We are trying to ramp up personnel,” he said, speaking at a Jan. 14 media briefing. He told the Journal the department has 21 personnel and is looking to hire “44 at least this year.”

In general, for a government-wide upgrade Aldan said he aims to purchase hardware and software and introduce email throughout the government, together with a cyber-security plan.

Various federal funding available to the NMI is “meant to improve infrastructure … to ensure that we as a territory have that digital equity,” Aldan said.

The first phase of digitizing would be procuring additional licenses and calculating how many users agency per office, he said.

As to the buildout of the internet structure in Saipan, Tinian and Rota, Aldan said the NMI had applied in August for “spanning out broadband across all the islands.” He said this could be a public-private initiative with local partners. Grants vary he said. The grants are for “essentially expanding building out the capacity. Written in there is the affordability.” Aldan said a partnership is “not necessarily restricted to the incumbent providers.”

Secretary of Finance David DLG Atalig told the Journal that the NMI’s local stimulus card grant program – which ended Dec. 31 had spent $25 million of local stimulus funding. Currently the Department of Finance is dispensing $500 to every residential utility account in the NMI, he said, which 2,000Commonwealth Utility Corp. clients have already received.

The NMI has also set aside $20 million for small business loans, to include those to support fishing and cattle industries and has solicited applications from non-profit organizations. “We’ve had many non-profit organizations submit,” Atalig said. “The requests are for different amounts. Organizations must be a 501(c)(3) organization and have a spending plan.

Atalig said there had been a request from the NMI Legislature for another stimulus plan. He said not all funding for the utility payments had been used. “There is funding. There may be another round of small amounts.” Atalig said the most of ARPA Act funding had been used to keep government employees on a full work week and the government running. He said not all funding needed to come from ARPA funding. The NMI is receiving additional food Quest or food stamp funding as well as housing assistance. “There are other programs we need people to avail of – not just from the Department of Finance,” he said.


Another MilCon task order issued

Hensel Phelps Construction Co. was awarded Jan. 12 CHamoru Standard Time a $44.81 firm-fixed-price task order through the Japanese-funded previously awarded multiple-award construction contract “for the construction of earth-covered magazines at Andersen Air Force Base”. The task order contains nine unexercised options which, if exercised, would increase the cumulative task order value to $1 million. Work is expected to be completed by January 2025. Three proposals were received for the task order, which was awarded by Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific, according to a release from the U.S. Department of Defense. mbj