Fijians urged to get vaccinated as soon as possible to build up immunity as COVID-19 spreads


Two weeks ago, Lepani Raiyala lost his partner Maree Stewart to COVID-19.

Stewart, a popular radio personality in Fiji, was only 39 when she died in hospital after contracting the virus amid the Pacific nation’s deadly outbreak.

Raiyala, who also tested positive for coronavirus, was forced to watch Stewart’s funeral service “helplessly” via Zoom while isolating at a COVID-care facility in the capital, Suva.

“The fact that I’m not able to make it [to the funeral] and to be there to perform one last thing for her before she goes … that hurts a lot,” Raiyala said.

The number of infections has surged past 12,000 in Fiji and more than 80 people have died after contracting the virus.

About two weeks before her death, Stewart had received her first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and proudly displayed her vaccination card in a social media post.

“Finally got my first jab,” Stewart said on Facebook.

“Thanks to you all that helped me get the information I needed to get it done.”

Stewart is one of at least 10 Fijians who have died from COVID-19 after receiving their first dose of the vaccine.

Though the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths globally are among the unvaccinated, experts say Stewart’s case highlights the need to maintain COVID-safe measures even after the first dose to allow the build-up of immunity.

Meru Sheel, an epidemiologist from the Australian National University who has worked in Fiji, said all evidence showed that vaccines were the best protection against the virus.

But a single jab does not offer “complete protection”, she said.

“We know that it takes a few weeks for the immune system to kick in and generate those antibodies that will fight the virus,” Dr Sheel said.

“And that can take almost two weeks to three weeks following your vaccine.”

Rachel Devi, the head of Fiji’s vaccination task force, said no-one who had been fully vaccinated in Fiji had succumbed to COVID-19.

“We’ve seen people who have died and who had received one jab and had just been vaccinated a week or two [before their death],” Dr Devi said.

“That’s not enough time for someone’s immune system to come up to par to prevent the disease.”

Data shows that one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine results in an 80 per cent lower risk of death from COVID-19.

Over 62 per cent of Fiji’s target population of almost 590,000 has received at least one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but just under 12 per cent has been fully vaccinated.

For Stewart’s grieving family and friends, her loss is one part of Fiji’s COVID-19 tragedy.

“We can’t believe that we’ve lost her at such a young age,” her sister Janice said.

“She’s left behind a son as well, who’s also autistic. So we’re going to make sure that we look after him well.”

Patricia Mallam, a close childhood friend of Stewart, said the young woman was keen to “get out there again, live a normal life”.

“The last message I got was, ‘Thank you for everything. I just want to tell you that I love you all,” Mallam said.

Fiji is expecting every eligible person over 18 to have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by mid-August and be fully vaccinated by November.

It has made vaccine compulsory for all workers.

But with an average of three COVID-19 deaths per day, the main morgue at Suva’s Colonial War Memorial Hospital has already reached capacity.

Two more freezer containers have been added to cater for an additional 100 dead bodies, if the need arises.

Maurice Ruggiero, who runs a local crematorium, said he expected demand for his services to increase in a month’s time.

“I think it’s early days. There will be people passing away in large numbers,” Ruggiero said.

“We may be having a totally different conversation in three [or] four weeks from now.”

A second group from the Australia-New Zealand Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) arrived in Fiji Wednesday to provide additional support to health workers.

Brian Spain is the head of the AUSMAT team that was deployed to Fiji in June, and his mission will return home on Monday.

“I think that the health service here is doing a really impressive job under extremely difficult circumstances,” Dr Spain said.

He encouraged Fijians to trust the health system in the country.

“What every individual can do is make sure they get themselves and their family vaccinated and to practise COVID-safe behaviours to try and minimise the impact of COVID, while the health service progresses and gets its ability to deal with sick people under control,” he said.

John Kaldor from the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales emphasised the need for people to get fully vaccinated, particularly when confronted with the more virulent Delta strain.

“What it does appear is that one dose is less effective against Delta, but once you get up to the two doses and you start to have a little bit of time elapsed, that protection does look very good for AstraZeneca as well as other vaccines,” Professor Kaldor said.

“You really only get strong immunity after the second dose.”

Professor Kaldor said until Fiji had a much higher vaccination rate, communities would need to stay vigilant against COVID-19 infections.

“The possibility of preventing [deaths] through a vaccine is really the only way that communities are going to get through this in the long term,” said Professor Kaldor.