Short FSM reprieve as its first suspected COVID-19 cases in Pohnpei and Yap test negative for the virus

Responders struggle with learning curve and urge continued vigilance by FSM residents


By Bill Jaynes

The Kaselehlie Press


March 20, 2020

89966959 291612358494069 4570462166406135808 nFSM—As of today, the Federated States of Micronesia officially announced that after testing for suspected cases the FSM has NO cases of COVID-19.  The tests for the three people who presented with suspect symptoms in Yap and the one in Pohnpei all came back negative for the novel coronavirus.

Though the news is good news, health officials are cautioning residents to remain vigilant by continuing the practices of social distancing and thorough and frequent hand washing. The Task Force in Pohnpei says that if you have COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath and body aches) DO NOT go to the hospital, clinics or dispensaries as this can cause further spread.  In Pohnpei call 320-3109 if you are experiencing symptoms and don’t ignore symptoms. Do not attend public gatherings or crowds. No not come in close contact with anyone who has fever and a cough.

FSM and State governments have assured FSM citizens that freight will continue to be carried and have asked residents not to stockpile supplies as more will come and stockpiling deprives others of supplies they may need while you don’t use them.

Several times United Airlines has announced flight cancellations due to the arrival of the virus in Hawaii and in Guam.  According to The Village travel agency, who has not received an official notification from United Airlines who also did not confirm them for us, today was to be the last full island hopper flight from Hawaii to Guam until May 3, but it did not arrive.  This weekend they will do a short island hopper flight from Guam to Pohnpei and back again and will repeat that flight again on Monday.  After this weekend’s flights the short route will only fly on Saturdays until May 3.  Those route announcements are subject to change.  Kosrae will not have another flight from United until May 3.

Asia Pacific Airlines will continue to carry cargo to FSM’s states during that time.

Misinformation on social media and by word of mouth has become a big factor that FSM health practitioners have not had to deal with during past viral outbreaks like SARS or the Cholera epidemic.  The public is challenged not to share misinformation and rumors or discriminate against anyone associated with COVID-19. Don’t believe everything you read on social media or on the Internet in general.

Unfortunately, according to comments on social media, some residents of Pohnpei took the negative test result as a sign that all is well.  One FB poster wrote that the danger was over for now so they could go back to the sakau market.  Others agreed, however, the virus itself has not yet been defeated in the world and social gatherings are still a dangerous idea for all concerned.  Though the FSM has yet to have an identified case of COVID-19, it does NOT mean that COVID-19 is not already here and each person should act as if they are a transmitter of the disease and take precautions to avoid the possibility of infecting everyone they care about.

Another person on Facebook wanted to know why people are still in quarantine if the test came back negative.  People are in quarantine because they have come to Pohnpei on a flight that may have been carrying people who are infected but don’t yet know it yet; people who perhaps traveled from Guam or Hawaii where the COVID-19 virus has definitely been identified.  The quarantine is for observation of arriving passengers to ensure that they do not have the virus in order to protect the community.

As the press release from the National Government on page seven of this issue says, ALL travelers arriving in the FSM must be quarantined for 14 days.  For now, no travelers are allowed to disembark in Chuuk while it makes quarantine arrangements it apparently had not made before the virus arrived in Hawaii and in Guam despite having been given funding to do so.  Pohnpei will allow only residents to enter except for invited medical professionals and those residents will need to be evaluated for quarantine.  Qualified doctors make the call on how long a traveler must be quarantined based on a variety of factors and their professional opinion. Only they can authorize release a person earlier than 14 days. Some have been released earlier or even never admitted at all based on standards and qualifications that the doctors know.

FSM President David Panuelo and Patricia Edwin were allowed to quarantine in home after they requested to do so.  The State grudgingly allowed that arrangement because it is just the two of them and they have 24 hour security at their home to keep outsiders away for their own safety.

The US Ambassador and the US Deputy Chief of Mission were allowed to quarantine in home for similar reasons but also because under the Vienna Convention, diplomats are not allowed to be detained.

On social media, many people have complained about quarantine arrangements in Pohnpei calling the quarantine centers “incubation grounds for the virus” rather than a proper quarantine.  Rumors have circulated that employees at the three quarantine centers serve quarantined passengers and then go home at the end of their shift.

“That’s absolutely incorrect,” said Pohnpei Chief of Staff Suzanne Gallen.  All of the employees have been trained in Infectious Disease Control training. All staff members are also quarantined. They never leave. They live onsite.

Four doctors and numerous nurses are on rotation at the quarantine centers which are Yvonne’s and China Star Hotels and the small center at the former Misko’s.  Because there is only one communal bathroom at the Misko’s center, only a few beds are occupied there.

“None of us are experts at quarantining,” Gallen said. “This is new territory for us.”  She said that every day they find gaps in the quarantining procedure and every day they make corrections and close those gaps.  Security is much better than when quarantining first began. Still during that time, only one person under quarantine took it upon herself to simply leave from Yvonne’s Hotel and go home.  Security is much tighter since then. That quarantined person has since been returned to Yvonne’s.

Outside people are NOT allowed into quarantine centers though early in the quarantine process security was lax and people did get into the centers.  That gap has been shored up.

China Star Hotel was the first quarantine center and the Task Force had printed information sheets for every quarantined person so that they would know what to expect.  Yvonne’s was later added and the instructions from China Star didn’t exactly apply there and the list for each person’s room has not yet been updated though that is happening.  People in quarantine there received no information on what to expect. There are phones in the room but no phone book and no information on how to contact the front desk or anyone else with questions or needs.

According to one person quarantined at Yvonne’s, linens for his bed are a problem.  His pillows have no cases and there is one sheet on his bed.  Cigarette smoke and loud music waft in from the room next door constantly.  A friend dropped off a favorite breakfast for him outside the hotel this morning and he never got it. It’s not an ideal situation for him but he said that there are always at least 10 people in his home and if this is what he needs to do to protect them then this is what he will do.

Not everyone has quite as good an attitude and many have complained, finding the quarantine procedure to be a needless formality.  Others have written to the Governor expressing their appreciation for the quarantine facility.

“There will continue to be gaps, despite our best efforts. We have to come to terms with the fact that the virus may make its way here eventually. The sooner people start taking our efforts seriously and helping rather than just criticizing, complaining and posting nasty comments on social media, the sooner we can focus on other areas where we desperately need to start planning for, like increasing the capacity of our morgue, how to ensure the elderly get their social security checks without making them more vulnerable to the disease then they already are, what to do about our students who possibly won’t finish the rest of the school year, what kinds of laws we need to put in place to ensure hygiene is paramount in our daily lives, but more important than all of these, how to get people to change their habits and attitudes. Spitting, nose-blowing onto the ground, sharing cups, not washing hands properly, not sanitizing public areas--we cannot afford to keep up these unhygienic behaviors. Our lives depend on it more now than ever before,” Gallen wrote.

Pohnpei is still not ready despite their best efforts but they are trying to be.  Funding is an issue. “For now, we are running severely short on Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) especially masks. We still have zero hospital machinery or equipment such as ventilators. Even first world countries are not equipped, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that we are not prepared or equipped either. Not IF, but WHEN this virus hits, we will likely have to go on complete lockdown. People should prepare for that—not panic and go out and buy all the rice and toilet paper. But prepare responsibly, practically, and with common sense and foresight. We were also told that we are running out of “our share” of funds from the National Government, according to the FSM Department of Health & Social Affairs. We’ve only just begun and the funds have depleted. We’re not even close to ready.”

But for now, the novel coronavirus has not yet been confirmed in the FSM.

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