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Fiji reaches COVID-19 milestone, but remains vigilant

On November 4th, 2020 Fiji marked 200 days without any transmission of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the community.

The Pacific nation confirmed its first case on March 19th, and as of November 4th, 2020, Fiji  had recorded a total of 34 cases and two deaths. Its last instance of transmission in the community was April 18th 2020.

Early investment in testing capacity was crucial in helping the Pacific nation keep numbers low and prevent the virus’ transmission. 

Around the time that the first case was confirmed in mid-March, Fiji’s molecular laboratory at the Fiji Centre for Disease Control had validated testing for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, enabling Fiji to quickly test specimens, rather than sending them overseas. This enabled the country to test, trace and isolate, to quickly limit transmission.

The World Health Organization (WHO) supported the Fijian government to be ready to respond to the first cases, by placing an epidemiologist in the Ministry of Health and Medical Services. Since then, WHO has provided Fiji with priority supplies, including 888,500 surgical masks, 53,400 N95 masks, 29,200 face shields, 2,000 protective goggles, 4,000 isolation gowns and 26,750 GeneXpert testing cartridges.

Repatriation flights continue to bring Fijians home, and with them, the threat of new cases of COVID-19.   The country has therefore put in place measures to quarantine returning citizens in Government-designated facilities for 14 days, and identify cases at the border.  This has led to sporadic cases being identified in border quarantine, thanks to an extensive testing regime. Fiji has opened “Blue Lanes’ to visitors who travel to Fiji via yacht and pleasure craft. After spending 14 days at sea, these visitors are tested for the virus before being allowed to enter the country.

“Fiji credits our 200-days of COVID Containment to a fast and early science-based approach, including the systematic identification and isolation of people infected with COVID-19, and quarantine of every known contact of confirmed cases. Through it all we have safely repatriated through a rigorous system of border quarantine. Our greatest enemy now is complacency. We must remain vigilant to keep the virus at bay, while positioning the Fijian economy for a recovery in the new normal,” said Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama.

“Organizing and managing quarantine for returning nationals is a challenge for every government. But when it is done properly, it is effective at limiting the importation of SARS-CoV-2.  Going 200 days without reporting any locally transmitted cases of COVID-19 is a huge achievement.” said Dr Takeshi Kasai, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. 

At the same time, he cautioned that “while the virus is circulating globally, every country must remain vigilant and be ready to respond accordingly – in ways that are targeted and proportionate to the situation it faces. Now is the time for Fiji – like other COVID-contained countries – to prepare for the eventual re-introduction of COVID-19.”

Fiji plays an important regional role as medical supplies are warehoused in Fiji and it is a hub for Pacific Humanitarian Pathway flights, which are part of the global COVID-19 supply chain system, to Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, Tuvalu and other neighbours.

New Caledonia has also managed to avoid local transmission for over 200 days, with 27 cases and no deaths. Some Pacific countries and areas have not reported a single case to date. They are American Samoa, Cook Islands, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Pitcairn Islands, Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. However, others including Guam, Papua New Guinea and French Polynesia are currently experiencing outbreaks.

WHO is supporting Fiji and other Pacific countries and areas through a COVID-19 Pacific Joint Incident Management Team (JIMT), through which the Organization coordinates partners to bring together resources and improve readiness to delay the spread of the virus and mitigate the negative health and socioeconomic impacts of COVID-19. This includes training and technical guidance on critical preparedness, readiness and response actions for COVID-19; working with stakeholders to ensure a whole-of-society response; procuring critical laboratory and medical supplies needed to test and treat cases, and personal protective equipment needed to protect health workers; and communicating with the public and engaging with communities on how to protect themselves and others, especially the vulnerable and those at highest risk.

The Joint IMT is based in the WHO office in Suva, Fiji, currently includes the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat, Pacific Island Health Officers’ Association (PIHOA), the Pacific Community (SPC), the United Nations Population Fund(UNFPA), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF),The United Nations Office of the Resident Coordinator (UNRCO), United Nations Development Programme(UNDP), UN Women the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Embassy Suva, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Bank.