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COVID-19 Task Force possibly violating Americans with Disabilities Act

Lt. Gov. Talauega Elasaro Ale
American Samoa woman petitions to repatriate with her trained service dogs

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — A resident of American Samoa trying to return home to the territory on a repatriation flight has hired an attorney to represent her in efforts to return home with her service dogs, believes her rights have been violated under the Americans with Disabilities Act. She has been trying to get on one of the repatriation flights that began in February. She has been stranded in the U.S since Mar. 9 2020, with her husband, Loran Whitehorn, who is her medical escort, according to Ve’ave’a.

Samoa News understands Ve’ave’a is not on the third repatriation flight from Hawaii, scheduled to arrive in the territory on Apr. 15, 2021. She says she has been patiently waiting for replies to multiple correspondences. Pre-travel quarantine began on Good Friday, Apr. 2nd. She is a local small business owner.

Ve’ave’a first wrote a letter in February 2021 to Lt. Gov. Talauega Elasaro Ale, COVID-19 Task Force Chair, asking that her two service dogs be allowed to accompany her and her husband on their journey home.

She wrote, “I … kindly request a waiver for my two service dogs, whom I wish to accompany me on my journey home to American Samoa. My two service dogs, Bogota and Tokyo, have played a major role in caring for me during my medical treatment and I certainly wish to take them home with me should I be repatriated.

“My service dogs are certified and trained and are therefore protected by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). I am more than happy to meet with Department of Health officials to provide them with documentation that they are able to stay in a hotel and provide legal documentation to that end. I have attached my service dogs ID for reference but can provide all paper work needed if my request will be granted.”

In Ve’ave’a’s letter to Talauega, she asks to be considered as an “essential worker”, (as per ASG criteria). as a Small Business owner, and be included in the March repatriation flight (which she was not). She noted that she has “managed for a year now, but being away from the everyday operations for so long put’s a strain on my business and poses a serious threat to the future concern of my business. This in turn, indirectly and directly affects my health and wellbeing.”

 Ve’ave’a did not receive a reply or acknowledgment to her letter to the Lt. Governor. On Mar. 15th, she emailed the Department of Health Director Motusa Nua to apprise him of her issue— that “Due to my disability, I was advised by my physician” to seek “assistance of having a trained service dog.”

As such, Ve’ave’a, according to her email, informed Motusa that she has two licensed and trained service dogs that need to accompany her back to American Samoa. She said that “my Service Dogs and I are protected by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA),” and requested that she “receive a confirmation from our American Samoa Government or DOH that me and my service dogs will be accommodated with accordance to ADA law and I am more than happy to provide the DOH officials with any documentation needed.

“Your response to my request regarding my service dogs will pave the way for my next course of actions on getting assistance.”

Motusa responded on Mar. 17th, “Acknowledging receipt of your enduring email.

Please be advised that currently, the American Samoa COVID-19 Task Force is not allowing any dogs to enter the Territory at this time.”

However, Motusa said, “as situation continues to improved in American Samoa, ie, more COVID free repatriation flights to the Territory, higher percentage of Mass Vaccination, our community expanding its knowledge of the pandemic and self protection, heightening the people's confidence with the system in place to protect over sixty thousand residents, the Task Force may consider lifting some restrictions.”

“This means yourself, your family and your two service dogs will have the opportunity to return home within the next three months providing most or all COVID-19 related concerns continue to improve. So, be happy for the fact that you do have a COVID free home to come back to. And soon, your family with your two trusted service dogs will join your child and love ones.”

 The email adds, “I am copying the Director of Agriculture, the Vet clinic, Director Samana and the American Samoa Task Force Chairman for their awareness. DOH will introduce your case in the next Task Force meeting scheduled for next Monday. All relevant agencies will review the documents and advise the Task Force. 

 “If we may ask you to secure an official note from your Physician to confirm the need for the service dogs,” Motusa says.

On Mar. 27, Ve’ave’a’s lawyer, Edward w. O’Connell Jr, Attorney at Law emailed his letter to Motusa, as well as the American Samoa Director of the Department of Homeland Security, the Lt Governor and the Director of Agriculture, pointing out that they were violating Ve’ave’a’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In the letter, O’Connell  writes that “one of our concerns involves the ‘time-is-of-the-essence’ attitude by all.” He says that “the criterion affecting my client and potential future repatriation should be communicated succinctly and quickly.” He asked that any and all issue be identified “and all issues that may affect my disabled client and her service dogs”.

O’Connell explains that “an untimely formal response may lead to legal action being taken.”

Samoa News published that latest update of the COVID-19 press release on Thursday Apr. 1, of its weekly meeting held on Mar. 29, 2021 at the Homeland Security Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

The press release includes a note on Ve’ave’a’s issue that “The Task Force is looking to discuss in its next meeting a request to allow service or emotional support dogs on repatriation flights.”

For the third repatriation flight from Hawaii, which is scheduled to arrive on April 15th, Samoa News has been told by some passengers that there are 238 people in the current quarantine. However, the first test was to be taken Saturday or Sunday, and results will dictate how many will continue to quarantine for the return flight to American Samoa.