Marshall Islands moves to reduce world’s strictest Covid-quarantine


The Marshall Islands is one of only a handful of nations never to have experienced a single case of community transmission of Covid-19.

Its border closure in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 and later implementation of one of the world’s strictest quarantine programmes for people coming into this isolated island group have kept it Covid-free.

Twenty-one months of border closure and 18 months maintaining an extended quarantine is slowly changing. In October, the government’s National Disaster Committee, which oversees the Covid response, gained Cabinet endorsement to reduce the Hawaii quarantine period from 14 days to seven for individuals who are fully vaccinated.

This past week, the government announced the Hawaii portion of quarantine for entry will be reduced to three days starting in January, which means to enter the country will involve 17 days of quarantine starting in the new year. The reduced Hawaii quarantine time raises the possibility of positive Covid cases showing up in people while in Marshall Islands quarantine facilities.

The two-stage quarantine was launched in June 2020 so U.S Army personnel and their families who work and live at the missile testing range at Kwajalein Atoll could repatriate from the United States. Initially, the Hawaii quarantine was under a week. But when one person in an early group of returning Army personnel tested positive for Covid while in quarantine at the Army base in Kwajalein, the Marshall Islands increased the time for managed quarantine to 14 days in Hawaii to match the same quarantine period at Kwajalein. That one positive case also resulted in the quarantine period in Kwajalein being extended to three weeks and the individual testing negative before release. There was no community transmission as a result.

The Marshall Islands began on a monthly basis to repatriate groups of Marshall Islanders, essential workers and diplomats in October last year.

From July 2020, the quarantine period was 14 days in Hawaii and 14 days in the Marshall Islands, with multiple Covid tests prior to release. It has been seven and 14 days quarantine in Hawaii and the Marshall Islands, respectively, for the past two months.

New vaccine requirements go into effect in January for anyone coming to Marshall Islands. “All entering Marshall Islands from 1 January onwards that are eligible for Covid-19 vaccines — that is, five years and older — are required to be fully vaccinated prior to entering,” said Chief Secretary Kino Kabua. Although the majority of those who are 12 years and older in the most recent several repatriation groups have been fully vaccinated, it has not been a requirement.

The Army has sought a reduced Hawaii quarantine period for some months, recommending three days instead of the current seven. There is no proposed change to the 14-day quarantine times in Majuro and Kwajalein for those repatriating from the U.S.

The National Disaster Committee, which Kabua chairs, recently endorsed the plan to reduce quarantine time in Hawaii, and submitted this to the Cabinet for review and approval.

The initial request for reducing the quarantine period came from the Army for their personnel, Kabua added. “We have always mirrored our protocols so this would of course be the case in the near future for Marshall Islands quarantine protocols for anyone entering the Marshall Islands that is fully vaccinated,” she said.
Before the seven-day Hawaii quarantine went into effect two months ago it generated a great deal of criticism and pushback from Nitijela or parliament members, who voiced their concerns at a Nitijela Committee of the Whole for maintaining the earlier 14-day quarantine period.

Since the seven-day quarantine went into effect for Hawaii, both for Army personnel and Marshall Islands groups, there have been no Covid cases detected in quarantine in either Kwajalein or Majuro. However, as with earlier quarantine groups, a number of people have tested positive for Covid in quarantine in Hawaii and been dropped from the returning groups.

The last Marshall Islands repatriation group for 2021 goes into quarantine in Hawaii on Monday 29 November. If no one tests positive for Covid in Marshall Islands quarantine, the fully vaccinated people group will be released a week before Christmas.