Palau Correspondent


KOROR, Palau — As of Feb. 22, Palau’s Ministry of Health and Human Services reported 1,185 COVID-19 cases, but the government ruled out a lockdown, saying Palau has more protection due to its high vaccination rate of 96%.

Palau — with a population of 18,000 — had remained COVID-free for two years, but is now experiencing a daily surge of the fast-spreading Omicron virus in the community. Despite the exponential increase in daily cases, officials said a lockdown is unsustainable, citing advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Richard Bostrom — one of the U.S. health officials in Palau — told reporters at a Jan. 14 press conference that closing the borders is “a very local decision.”  He said with Palau’s high vaccination rate it already has protection against the highly contagious virus.

“However, I think with Omicron, it’s so infectious, that the type of closure of borders would have to be very, very extreme and most importantly — that horse already left the barn,” he said.

Bostrom made the comment when COVID cases numbered less than 100; in the last few weeks cases have increased 900%.

Nevertheless, the government of Palau is confident that the country will be able to overcome the surge, saying that it seems to cause less hospitalization.

The Palau Ministry of Health and Human Services updates residents regularly on number of cases and changes in regulations.
Image courtesy of the Palau Ministry of Health and Human Services

President Surangel S. Whipps Jr. in a Jan. 26 press statement asked the country to “remain calm and diligently adhere to all the public health guidelines” of wearing masks and socially distancing.

According to a Feb. 2 situational report, despite the increase in cases, there are only 10 hospitalizations, and patients are in stable condition. But the rise in cases seems to be overwhelming the healthcare system and the lone of the hospital of the country.

Sen. Stevenson Kuartei, who is also a physician, said the COVID surge is putting additional stress on Palau’s already “thin’ health sector, as nurses and doctors are exposed to the virus. 

Minister of Health Gaafar Uherbelau said he expects a steep increase in cases in the coming weeks.

“At this time, we are in the fourth week of the surge. We are hoping that by the end of this week or early next week will start to see the number of cases stabilize and then eventually go on a downward trend. That’s our assessment at this point. We are looking at the trend in other countries — especially from the different states in the U.S., in which at 30 days the virus peaks and steadily moves in a downward trend,” he told reporters on Feb. 2.

Schools have been suspended since Jan.15 in an attempt to flatten the curve, but the government announced Feb. 2 that schools could reopen.

Flights do continue to come in Palau, notably from Guam. mbj