Today we are announcing two potential cases of COVID-19 at our border. We are not yet counting these as official border cases for Fiji yet, as we are awaiting information on whether these individuals have tested positive in another country in the past.
These cases are a bit different from the usual, so please bear with me as I explain.
As we have outlined in the past, Fiji has allowed for importing and exporting via cargo ships throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to maintain economically-vital flows of goods in and out of the country. Without this, we would soon run out of many of the basic goods of everyday life. To support this essential service, the Ministry of Health and Medical Services has worked with Fiji Ports Corporation Limited (FPCL) and Fiji Ports Terminal Limited (FPTL) to develop protocols that allow for cargo ships to enter Fijian ports without jeopardizing Fiji’s COVID-Contained status.
Some of those protocols include the following:
- If any crew are to disembark a vessel arriving from another country, they must first receive permission from the Department of Immigration (who consult with the Ministry of Health and Medical Services), undergo 14 days of border quarantine, and test negative for COVID-19 in quarantine. This is a similar practice for incoming air passengers.
- If no crew member is planning to disembark, the ship is permitted to enter the port, however, no one on board leaves the vessel at any time. Therefore, they remain at our border until the ship conducts its business and departs. Only authorized Fijian personnel are permitted to board the vessel on official business – and they must wear appropriate personal protective equipment and maintain a safe physical distance as much as possible.
In line with these protocols, on 2 December 2020, the freighter MV Island Chief, arrived at the Lautoka Port to deliver cargo and then proceeded on to Suva port. The vessel’s last port of call was Nukualofa, Tonga – arriving and departing on November 30th. The information we have at this time is that none of the crew left the vessel in Tonga.
The MV Island Chief had arrived in Nukualofa from New Zealand, where it had been stationed from the 16th to the 25th of November. During the time in New Zealand, the vessel underwent a crew change, where individuals are typically flown in from other countries to replace exiting crew. Our current information is that all crew underwent the full 14-day period of quarantine and tested negative for the virus in New Zealand before the vessel departed. We are making contact with the New Zealand health authorities to verify this information – particularly the negative test results.
As is the standard operating procedure, the vessel was guided into the Lautoka and Suva ports by Fijian pilot officers equipped with the proper personal protective equipment. While in Fijian waters the vessel was boarded by one shipping agent, two biosecurity officers, one customs officer, and three ports terminal officers. As part of document exchange, one of these individuals – a customs officer – made contact with the ship crew. He was equipped with the proper personal protective equipment and maintained a safe physical distance as much as possible. None of the crew of the MV Island Chief disembarked the vessel in Fiji.
The MV Island Chief was next scheduled to depart for Samoa. Prior to departure, the crew members needed to be tested again for COVID-19, in accordance with Samoan entry requirements. To accommodate this request, a team from the Ministry of Health and Medical Services, wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, boarded the vessel and collected samples for testing from all 12 crew members.
As a result of this testing, two crew members of the MV Island Chief have tested positive for COVID-19. The first tested positive twice, on December 4th and 6th. The second crew member tested negative on December 4th, and then positive on December 6th. The positive results are both what may be called a “weak positive” – indicating that a very small amount of viral material was present in the sample. The international evidence around COVID-19 molecular testing indicates these are not likely to be a live virus. Based on these test results, and the fact that both crew members have no symptoms, the indication is that they are at the end of their illness and these are what we call ‘historical’ cases. If true, then they were not infectious while at Fiji’s border. We are exploring options for further testing to confirm this.
The two crew members who have tested positive have been hygienically transported to the isolation ward at Navua Hospital. The remaining crew members have been entered into border quarantine facilities. We are also deep-cleaning all relevant facilities, including the Harbor Master’s Office and Pilot boat.
Again, to be clear:
- No crew members aboard the MV Island Chief disembarked the vessel.
- All Fijian officials who boarded the vessel were wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment
- Test results indicate that the two cases may not have been infectious.
However, acting out of an abundance of caution: All Fijian officials who boarded the vessel have been identified and entered into quarantine facilities. We have identified 21 close contacts
of the Fijian officials who interacted with the vessel, and are in the process of also entering them into quarantine facilities.
Until we have established that there is no risk of transmission in the community, the Colonial War Memorial Hospital and the Lautoka Hospital will operate at reduced capacity. Again, we are acting out of an abundance of caution. In the interest of our people’s health and wellbeing, Fiji has always applied an extremely rigorous approach to our containment of the virus. We will be sure to update you when we have more information on these cases.
Now, I know that there have been questions about why we have maintained some of our COVID-Safe restrictions if Fiji is COVID-Contained, and all cases are at the border. These potential cases are one of the many reasons why.
We are relying on our dedicated men and women at the frontline, protecting our borders, and caring for border cases in our isolation units under strict infection prevention and control protocols. But we have seen breaches happen in more advanced countries than Fiji. We have watched this happen, and we have improved our own processes as a result. But it could still happen here. In that worst-case scenario, our society must be COVID-Ready. As we did in March and April, every Fijian must take ownership over our national effort to contain the virus. Until such a time when a vaccine is widely available, we cannot become complacent.
I urge all Fijians again, if you have not downloaded and installed the careFIJI contact tracing application, please do so. In this instance, we have once again relied on contact tracing as our most effective tool to reduce any risk of spread among the community. The careFIJI application, when widely adopted, makes that process more efficient and more reliable. Downloading the application isn’t difficult, and it makes the potentially life-saving work of our contact tracers much easier.
As part of our COVID-Safe Economic Recovery Framework, we had allowed some nightclubs to re-open, not as night clubs but as venues where people could have a drink in a COVID-safe manner within a social bubble of friends. We did this to manage risks while also allowing people to return to their jobs and generate some economic activity. However, there are numerous reports that some people may be breaching these COVID-safe restrictions. If any of these venues are found to be in breach, they will be shut down.
With over 66 million cases confirmed worldwide and over 1.5 million deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic is only worsening. And Fiji remains a COVID-Contained country. Together, we can keep it that way. Please, adhere to our COVID-Safe measures, so we together we can be COVID-Ready.