Gubernatorial teams outline COVID-19 border and repatriation policies
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Reopening of the territory’s borders and steps to be taken if and when COVID-19 enters American Samoa are two separate issues raised during the second gubernatorial forum hosted recently by the American Samoa Bar Association at the American Samoa Community College Multipurpose Center.
Questions posed during the second forum came from the public.
Noted is that the team of Gaoteote and Fai’ivae was not able to attend due to a previous commitment.
“Many people are eager to repatriate citizens, or even return to a more open border. At the same time many people support keeping the border closed during the pandemic [which] is likely to continue through at least the beginning of the next administration. How would your administration decide when to return to an open border?” was the question posed to each of the three gubernatorial candidates.
NUA & SATELE
Candidate for governor, Sen. Nuanuaolefeagaiga Saoluaga Nua responded saying that this deadly pandemic should be taken seriously by all to ensure that it doesn’t spread to the territory.
He said Nua and Satele support a repatriation flight, but also for the government to ensure the safety of local residents so that the virus doesn’t enter the territory. He says the government should work closely with doctors in preparation for a repatriation flight.
He said the question that should be asked — Is the government prepared if the virus does spread to the territory, and is the hospital prepared and ready to care for COVID-19 patients?
If elected, Nua and Satele will have a plan in 30-days to carry out a repatriation flight and to make sure the 60,000-plus local population will not get the virus, he said, noting that the plan includes working with health officials in Hawai’i and upon arrival here, travelers go through a 14-day quarantine.
LEMANU & TALAUEGA
Candidate for governor, Lt. Gov. Lemanu Palepoi Sialega Mauga said their administration — if elected — will continue with the current preparations already in place by the government, including ensuring the hospital has all the resources it needs.
Those resources include sufficient physicians and nurses, and needed equipment; as well as continuing with the Health Department’s current border checking.
But “eventually” borders will need to reopen, he said, adding that it should not be a long time away when the vaccine — as been reported many times by national news outlets — is available.
“If and when such vaccine become available, then plans will put in place to reopen borders,” he said, and points out that not only do stranded local residents want to return home, but there are also business people and contractors waiting to travel here to work.
I’AULUALO & TAPAAU
Candidate for governor, I’aulualo Fa’afetai Talia said the priority of a leader is to ensure the welfare and safety of the people of the territory is well protected and its starts at home in American Samoa.
However, it has caused difficulties and “mental health becomes a big issue here. Not only for the people here on island, but also our residents that are stranded off island,” he said.
For I’aulualo and Tapaau “as long as there is a spike in the number of cases in the United States, it is very dangerous for us to open the borders. Also, as long as we don’t have the sufficient infrastructure on island, we have to be very careful in opening the borders,” he said. “So we support continuing to close the border.”
But, he said that their team has a plan and “if we become leaders, we’ll seriously consider implementing it.”
That plan was shared by candidate for lieutenant governor, Tapaau Dr. Daniel Mageo Aga.
“You’ve heard the same answer over and over again, Tapaau told the audience. “We felt we needed to find other alternatives, until there’s a vaccine that cures, or proven therapies — the risk is far too high to simply open up commercial travel to American Samoa.”
He explained that there is a group of ‘mercy’ ships that are a worldwide ministry — they have ships the size of cruise ships. “American Samoa could work with [such] humanitarian missions and develop all of the scientific protocols that will protect all of these people,” he explained. “This is a possible alternative for all of our family and friends off island — otherwise we don’t open the border until there is a cure or vaccine.”
RELATED COVID-19 QUESTION
The last question, asked of the candidates at the forum was: “If COVID-19 does reach American Samoa, how would your administration respond to contain the spread of the virus?”
I’AULUALO & TAPAAU
Tapaau noted that the governor has already put in place the three-part threat level for the territory, which is currently under Code-Blue with no confirmed case, and it will elevate to Code Yellow for one confirmed case and the third level is Code Red if there is a community spread.
As to the question itself, Tapaau said “it depends on testing, as you’ve seen in the States. We’ve got to get our testing all the way up to speed. It depends on quarantine facilities and it’s something that none of us wants to happen.”
“None of us here in American Samoa want to see this happen but we have to look at what other communities have been doing,” he said like the US territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
He said he and I’aulualo support that executive order from the governor and the COVID-19 task force, which outlines guidelines to be taken when the threat level is elevated.
“But we also know we have to build our critical infrastructure, we have to do strong public awareness programs, tell our community exactly what they have to do,” he said. “And every person on the island has to exercise the kind of discipline to keep it from spreading. If the government said everyone wear a mask, we all wear a mask.”
NUA & SATELE
Candidate for lieutenant governor, Tapumanaia Galu Satele Jr., said that if the team is elected, they will have a plan within 30-days to “address not only repatriation but also how to deal with our borders if we ever came to opening the borders.”
“One of the things that we have to remember, is that the reason why it’s so hard for us to open our borders right now, is that our people are so stubborn,” said Tapumanaia. “Our people have a hard time listening and following the rules that have been given or the policies that have been asked of everybody.”
“If they [government] say to stay in your house, you’ve been quarantine, we see them walking about the next day,” he said. “So it’s very important for us to understand that if we do have a case, we need all to be part of the solution.”
He reiterated that everyone has to follow the guidelines and polices that have been given through the government’s different threat-level code system.
LEMANU & TALAUEGA
Lemanu recalled that he was one of the local residents stranded in Hawai’i when the borders were first closed and Hawaii put in place various restrictions, impacting businesses and government services, to keep the virus from spreading further in the Aloha State.
He said stay-at-home orders were in place and also curfew was implemented on all Hawaiian islands.
“So that’s how we look at COVID-19 and restrictions we will put in place, here, to protect the safety and health of the community,” he said. “We bring the experience of others countries off island.”