Provisional date set for first repatriation flight from Honolulu
Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga has given provisional approval to the government’s Repatriation Plan and has agreed to the ASG Coronavirus Task Force’s suggestion of the first repatriation flight in mid January for the estimated 600 American Samoa residents stranded in the U.S.
The governor’s provisional approval is outlined in a Nov. 16th letter addressed to task force chairman Iulogologo Joseph Pereira and task force members as well as copies to Lt. Gov. Lemanu Palepoi Sialega Mauga, who is also governor-elect, Interior Department’s Office of Insular Affairs director Nikolao Pula and Eileen Tyrell, president of the Tagata Tutu Fa’atasi Alliance of American Samoa — the group pushing for repatriation flights.
In his letter, Lolo noted that the Repatriation Plan prepared by the Health Department in collaboration with LBJ Medical Center, has been thoroughly vetted by the task force in it’s meeting Nov. 10th and approved its advancement to the Executive Leadership for a decision.
According to the governor, the “key elements” of the four-stage repatriation plan “were clearly articulated” to him and he gives his “provisional approval to allow further investigation and to ascertain clarity on each of the plan elements.”
Specifically, the governor wants “greater specificity on policies to guide the implementation” of each phase of the plan. For example, on the Registration Phase, who will be responsible for this phase?
While DoH has prepared the online Registry Platform, he said the Attorney General needs to get involved to vet those approved to travel. Additionally, there is a need to establish “priority ranking on those given first priority to fly on the first flight.”
According to the repatriation plan, those approved to travel will be required to first go into quarantine for 10-days in Hawaii, where DoH will work with partners, already identified, in Honolulu.
The governor told the task force that the Hawaii quarantine operation will be the most challenging stage of the plan and he will need to see the detail stage of the Hawaii quarantine process inclusive of the testing which needs to occur during the 10-day quarantine.
He said that “detailed policies must be in place to guide and control the implementation” of each stage of the repatriation plan.
“Inherent cost of the entire repatriation plan operation is a significant issue we need to address — particularly the sources of funding,” he said, noting that based on the 600 projected number of stranded residents, more than one flight will be required to bring everyone home.
The governor approved the task force’s recommended 140 minimum number of passengers on each repatriation flight. Lolo also gave “provisional approval until all of the specifics have been ascertained” for the use of Tradewinds Hotel along with DoH facilities for quarantine sites in the territory.
“The major challenges inherent in this major undertaking such as facilities, human resources and financial capacities must be fully addressed with clear solutions identified,” Lolo emphasized to the task force.
He recalled that DoH has “repeatedly” cited the lack of human resources capacity, particularly in ensuring that each phase of the repatriation plan is fully monitored while continuing to perform its regular public health duties.
Additionally, it’s clearly evident that DoH will shoulder most of the major task for the repatriation plan. And the obvious question is, said Lolo, will DoH have the human resources capacity to meet all of the repatriation plan activities with simultaneous continuation of its other public health responsibilities?
“I am pleased that the primary thrust of the repatriation plan is to preempt and minimize the risk of any accidental transmission in our attempt to bring our people home,” he said. “With the imminent availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, our protocols must be relaxed a bit but in the meantime, let us move ahead with our efforts to repatriate our people.”
The suggested target date for the first repatriation flight is Jan. 19, 2021 — which the governor says “might be a bit ambitious.”
However, he said “for now let us go with it with the understanding that this date will be changed if the specifics of each stage of the repatriation plan are not fully clarified.”
The governor also said that he is grateful to Pula for all of his “efforts and assistance in helping us find a workable solution not only in our efforts to bring our people home, but also ensuring that American Samoa receives its fair share of federal resources dedicated to combating this life-ending virus.”
The governor recognized and thanked Tyrell for her efforts and those of the Alliance in articulating the “needs of our residents stranded” off island.
Lolo said he appreciates the work performed by the task force, who should find satisfaction in the fact that American Samoa is one of the few places in the world, which has not succumbed to the deadly virus.
In closing the governor said, it’s “disconcerting” to see the upward spikes in the number of confirmed cases and “sorrowful on the comparable rise in the number of Americans fallen victim to this health nemesis.”
“We thank the Governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga and the COVID-19 Task Force for their efforts in keeping our island safe,” said Tyrell, president of the TTFAAS in response to Samoa News’ request for comments on the governor’s letter.
While the governor’s letter has outlined some of the loopholes in the repatriation plan, “we have noticed that there is a specific date, January 19 2021” for first repatriation flight, which Tyrell said is “something that has never been put forth and so having this timeline to work with is a step forward to reuniting families.”
Samoa News also asked Tyrell about another aspect of the letter that stood out — the financial part of the flight. How will the flights be funded? Will they expect partial payments from the stranded residents?” Samoa News asked.
“Let me be upfront and as clear as I can be — the Stranded Residents of American Samoa are out of money,” Tyrell declared.
“Another continuous attempt to ask for financial assistance from our government and the holidays are coming up, the $17 million surplus going towards to Fono Building, the $2.3 million going towards the building of the new court house — Could YOUR stranded people get a portion of those funds allocated to them?” she questioned.
“Let this be your last act of kindness as Governor of American Samoa before leaving office,” she added.