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Health boss says “we do not have enough facilities yet to cater for several severe cases”

By ILIESA TORA

Nuku’alofa – October 7, 2021: 10.10am (Nuku’alofa Times): The Kingdom’s borders are not opening yet, the Chief Executive Officer for Health has confirmed.

In an interview with Nuku’alofa Times, Dr Siale Akauola says Tonga’s borders are not going to open yet, even though countries like Australia and Fiji have indicated they will open borders in November to those who have had the full vaccination of two shots.

“We need to have 70 percent vaccination coverage of all population,” Dr Siale said. 

“There is no plan for open border with Australia and New Zealand yet. We will still review the risks and more likely keep the quarantine requirement for every arrival to Tonga from selected countries only, depending on the clear evidence there is no covid19 transmission in their communities.”

One of the main factor that the Ministry of Health and the government is looking at is Tonga’s capability to deal with sever COVID-19 cases.

“This is why we want to keep covid19 out of Tonga because we do not have enough good facilities to manage several severe covid19 patients at one time,” he added.

The Ministry is now working on vaccination rollouts in the Niuas and Vava’u, with those needing second shots being urged to return for their complete shots.

Here is the full interview with Dr Siale: 

NT: What happens now, if the numbers that were targeted is not met on time? 

Dr Siale: We have noted that the majority of those that have not turned up are those between ages 18 to 30 years old. This is the new group that have just been added to the original above 30 years old age group when the vaccination drive started. We think that the messages have not really hit home to them and they may still think that they are not going to be affected by Covid19. However, because the Delta Variant of covid19 has been shown to affect even this age group, we are increasing our communication and vaccination promotion drive, targeting this group. By utilizing youth groups, schools, churches, politicians where possible and community leaders. We still hope that the vaccination rate will pick up.  We will also increase the vaccination teams to tray and go to every village to seek out those that have not been vaccinated to be vaccinated.

NT: Those who are not coming forward to get their second shots – what can be done so that they are able to get those shots and be fully vaccinated?

Dr Siale: At the moment, the numbers not receiving second shots have slowly gone down. Most of them just plainly had forgotten or just too busy doing their own things. And about 20% just did not leave any phone contact number to enable our team to follow up. 

NT: From the MOH perspective and consultations, what is the main reason why some are not getting vaccinated at all — and why those who have received the first doses are not coming back for the second one?

Dr Siale: For those who are not getting vaccinated at all due to personal belief or religious belief, we don’t think there is a large number. I would estimate it as less than 1% of the population.

The other common reasons coming out although we have not really done a formal survey to find the exact number; are mostly due to: just being too busy, forgotten to come and get vaccinated,  afraid of being injected, and few other reasons. We also suspect that there may be a few numbers that are just not interested in the covid19 and the vaccination program. 

Health worker Pat Lasalo promoting vaccination after his own second shot. Photo: MOH Tonga

NT: If we do not meet the target by the November date what then?

Dr Siale: A decision will be made by then when exact percentage coverage has been achieved. Up to today, it is pleasing to note that almost 60% of Tongatapu’s target population have been fully vaccinated. However, we need to have 70% vaccination coverage of All population not just the target population. We hope we can still achieve the target or close to it by December 2021.

NT: When does Vava’u get the vaccination program rolling out? And the Niuas?

Dr Siale: Vava’u will get its second dose soon and Niuas have started its first dose roll out already.

NT: Will that affect our plans to open borders to Australia and New Zealand?

Dr Siale: There is no plan for open border with Australia and NZ yet. We will still review the risks and more likely keep the quarantine requirement for every arrival to Tonga from selected countries only, depending on the clear evidence there is no covid19 transmission in their communities.

NT: Fiji is now setting up systems in place for the reopening of borders and local tourism facilities in November. When does the MOH believe we may be able to open borders for normal flights and shipping services from overseas?

 Dr Siale: There is no plan yet for opening up of border for travelers from overseas. More likely, Tonga will keep its mandatory quarantine for all arrivals from selected countries only, with no community transmission of covid19, following the usual thorough risk assessments. 

NT: Are we now able to serve our people with emergency needs in case we do have some cases in Tonga when the  n? Do we have the facilities and equipment needed? 

Dr Siale: This is why we want to keep covid19 out of Tonga because we do not have enough good facilities to manage several severe covid19 patients at one time. At the same time, we want to have high coverage of covid19 vaccination in Tonga. Vaccination has been shown to reduce number of people (reduce by more than 95%) for those who get infected with covid19, suffering from severe clinical symptoms ending up in admission to ICU or dying of the disease.

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