Marshall Islands, haven from Covid for two years, gets 3,000 cases in space of weeks

·3 min read

After dodging the Covid-19 pandemic for two years, the Marshall Islands is grappling to control the spread of infections, which have tripled since the first community transmissions were detected a week ago.

The number of positive cases in the north Pacific nation, which has a population of about 60,000 people, has skyrocketed to more than 3,000 cases with four Covid-linked deaths and seven hospital admissions.

One thousand cases were reported in the capital, Majuro, on Sunday, which was “almost double from the previous day”, said the health secretary, Jack Niethendal.

Related: Fear and dread: Covid-free for two years, Pacific islands experience explosion in case numbers

Niedenthal said about 75% of Covid tests were coming back positive, which he called “an incredibly high positivity rate”.

The Marshall Islands has a vaccination rate of 70% of people aged six months and above. The remote nation was able to stay Covid-free until October 2020 when two travellers from the US tested positive. However, there had been no community transmission until this month.

The mounting numbers have put further strain on the Marshall Islands’ limited health care system, forcing the ministry to recall Covid-positive healthcare workers back to work to keep facilities operating.

In an update on his Facebook page, Niedenthal said more heath care workers tested positive on Sunday.

“I saw a few negative complaints on social media regarding the idea that we are asking our healthcare workers to return to work if they are only experiencing mild symptoms,” he said. However, he said the public health agency was left with no other option. “You can’t have healthcare if you don’t have healthcare workers.”

Related: Covid outbreaks in Samoa and Vanuatu chip away at Pacific islands’ virus-free status

The Marshall Islands was one of the first countries to close its borders to international travel, banning incoming flights on 8 March 2020, a few days before the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.

“We spent many urgent and stressful hours convincing other government officials that this was the best thing to do, and they listened,” Niedenthal said in an email to the Guardian.

The Covid-19 pandemic was preceded by dengue. “We knew we were not capable of fighting two very contagious diseases at the same time given our limited capacity,” Niedenthal said.

He said the prompt closure of the borders delayed the arrival of Covid-19, giving time to organise and prepare. “This was a total community effort,” he said.

For the entire calendar year of 2021, the Marshall Islands did not have a single case of Covid-19. “By delaying the onset of this disease longer than almost every country in the world, we gained the scientific knowhow needed to protect our people. It was smart,” he said.

The health secretary said his agency would send test kits and supplies, along with a nurse practitioner, to remote villages including Aur, Maloelap, Jalui, Mili and Ailinglaplap, with fears that they too could soon be recording high numbers of cases.

“Other atolls will soon follow, we are trying to prioritise those atolls and islands where we know there have been travellers from Majuro from the previous week and therefore potentially infected,” Niedenthal wrote.