Crew member aboard MS Chief Mailo tests positive for COVID-19 in Pohnpei waters

Crew members isolated and government says there is no immediate danger

By Bill Jaynes

The Kaselehlie Press


January 17, 2021

Pohnpei, FSM—On January 8, the FSM could no longer say that it was entirely COVID-19 free. On that day, Pohnpei Medical responders tested all crew members and passengers aboard the MS Chief Mailo and found one person who tested positive for the virus.  The President’s information officer said that the fact that the positive case was found and the person was isolated before he could come into contact with anyone except his shipmates is a testimony to the effectiveness of the preparations the various task forces had made. “Everything worked the way it was supposed to work,” he said.

Among the few passengers was Melson Dillidy of Polowat, Chuuk who was found drifting alone in a small boat and rescued by Philippine fishermen on April 9, 2020. He was 10 years old at the time and has been in the Philippines since that time awaiting repatriation after his harrowing ordeal.

On Sunday evening, January 3, 2021, the MS Chief Mailo arrived in waters off Pakin carrying 12 crew members, the bare minimum number for safe operation of the vessel. At least one non-crew member was also aboard. The vessel had arrived straight from General Santos City, Philippines after their departure on December 24.  According to Pohnpei State Governor Reed Oliver in a face to face conversation and his Public Information Officer in online conversations, the Chief Mailo’s radio call to the Pohnpei Port Authority on Sunday evening saying that they were short on fuel, food and water was the first word that Pohnpei officials, and particularly the Pohnpei COVID-19 Task Force had of their eminent arrival.

The Chief Mailo crew asked for permission to dock for resupply.  Having no information on the condition of the passengers, the COVID-19 Task Force denied that request. However, after a series of emergency

meetings beginning on Monday evening, permission was granted for the vessel to anchor two miles out from Pohnpei’s shores. According to a State and National press release, the vessel entered Pohnpei’s anchorage area inside the lagoon on January 6 where State and National law enforcement and border protection staff are maintaining constant security.

The crew members had been confined to the vessel since September 22, 2020. Before their departure, each crew member tested negative for the virus in three separate tests each but on January 7, one of the crew members tested positive in two separate tests.  The government assures the people of the FSM that the crew members have had no contact with the FSM community other than on board the vessel and that the one individual who tested positive is now isolated in the dispensary of the MS Chief Mailo.

A second round of tests was planned for Thursday January 14 but was later rescheduled for Monday, January 18. The government says that though the first two tests which were nasal PCR tests are “very sensitive and almost certainly correct.  However, during Monday’s planned testing, medical experts will additionally perform a blood test to check for antibodies which will help them to understand whether the crew member was infected in the past and then recovered.  In many such cases, the presence of antibodies in a recovered COVID-19 can lead to a positive COVID-19 diagnosis even though the patient is no longer contagious. However, FSM’s medical experts are taking no chances.

During this sensitive time, it is important that citizens receive their information from trustworthy sources,” FSM President David Panuelo said in a speech addressing the nation. “The only sources you should receive your information from are the Risk Communication Committees from the National and State COVID-19 Task Forces, the National and State Public Information Offices, and State Public Radio Stations.”

During his speech he quickly put down the pervasive rumor that a crew member of the Chief Mailo had jumped overboard and swam to Sokehs island thereby escaping quarantine. He said that there was no truth to that rumor and that no crew member has come into contact with any member of the public other than the four medical responders.

“The team of four testers from Pohnpei State wore a full complement of PPE. The team of four testers did not visit their families, drink sakau, or otherwise act irresponsibly,” the President said.

“The team of four testers, after confirming the positive test on one individual, voluntarily and willingly went straight into quarantine at the Emergency Medical Unit in Dekehtik. They have all been tested for COVID-19 and their results were negative.”

However, the Pohnpei State Public Information officer said that while that statement is true as issued and was what the President was told, the four responders didn’t actually enter quarantine until several hours after they were told to do so by the Chair of the Pohnpei COVID-19 Task Force after having been informed of the positive tests. The Chair made that phone call to the medical responders during one of the Task Force meetings. The Public Information Officer was quick to point out, however, that all medical responders had been properly wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), that had been properly handled and properly disposed.  He said that because the personnel acted safely and according to protocol, they were not actually required to enter quarantine.  However, the Task Force felt it would be wise to do so just the same.  All responders initially tested negatively and also tested negatively when they were tested after a week of quarantine.

COVID-19 has not directly hit the FSM populace at large and the government issued not mandates regarding physical distancing, mask wearing or other more drastic measures. The Task Forces still, as they have been doing for month, highly recommends and encourages residents to continue to practice social distancing, mask wearing, and other precautionary measures such as frequently washing hands.

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