The tiny COVID-free Pacific nation of Palau is poised to become one of the world’s first countries to be mostly vaccinated against the coronavirus.
With a population of around 18,000, the country is about the same size of some suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne.It’s this size that has put the country in prime position to be among the first to be inoculated against COVID-19, after it received its first shipment of the Moderna vaccine on Saturday and commenced vaccinations on Sunday.”Palau is a very small island with a very small population, and that’s an advantage,” Collin Tukuitonga, a specialist in public health in the Pacific at the University of Auckland, told the ABC.”I’m pretty optimistic that they would cover everyone fairly quickly, and they may well be the first in the Pacific region to have complete coverage.”While the vaccine is not compulsory, Dr Tukuitonga said inoculating 80 per cent of Palau’s population was a “good target” that would prevent the prospect of a devastating outbreak hitting the country.
How has Palau fast-tracked vaccination?
As Palau is an independent nation in free association with the United States, the country has access to the heft of Washington when it comes to defence, finance, and social services.This means that Palau, alongside US Pacific territories and Pacific nations in free association with the US, are part of America’s mass COVID-19 vaccination program, known as Operation Warp Speed.On January 2, Palau’s Health Minister Emais Roberts said the country’s first vaccine batch contained 2,800 doses of the Moderna vaccine, which is administered in two separate doses 28 days apart.
Health workers, high-ranking officials, and the elderly are first in line to receive the jab, with the Government aiming to have 1,400 doses administered by Friday.Meanwhile, another 30,000 doses have been requested from the US.Palau was initially due to receive doses of the Pfizer vaccine in December, but didn’t have the facilities to keep the doses at the required minus 70 degrees Celsius.It gave its allocation of Pfizer vaccines to Guam, which has been much harder-hit by the virus, recording more than 7,300 cases and 122 deaths.The Moderna vaccine vials, however, can be stored in a standard refrigerator at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius.Already, president-elect Surangel Whipps Jr and Health Minister Emais Roberts have received the first dose of the vaccine.At a Sunday press conference at the Belau National Hospital in the central city of Koror, Mr Roberts said he was confident that Palau’s small population meant they could vaccinate the majority of the country.”There are always a few people who are resistant, but if we get the majority, I think we’re safe,” he said.Gaafar Uherbelau, the Palau Health Ministry’s Emergency Operation Centre’s deputy incident commander, said the Government was aiming for 80 per cent coverage.
Palau initially planned to have vaccination mostly completed by April, but Mr Uherbelau said this deadline would “probably be extended”, owing to a slowdown in the distribution of vaccines from the US.
How can Palau be the first to obtain mass vaccine coverage?
Getting a country vaccinated at a large scale depends on a number of factors, and certainly the smaller the population, the easier it is to vaccinate.However, it also assumes the population widely takes up the vaccine, and the country has the health infrastructure to administer vaccines effectively”They’ve actually got a very good health system, generally speaking, in terms of numbers of healthcare professionals, the infrastructure — it’s pretty good by Pacific standards,” Dr Tukitonga said. Local leaders are urging their fellow Palauans to resist their nerves and get the jab for the health of the country.Sylvia Osarch, a 60-year-old geriatric doctor, was the first Palauan to receive the vaccine on Sunday at the Belau National Hospital.While wearing scrubs, Dr Osarch told the ABC that she wanted to convince the community that the vaccine’s “benefits outweigh the risk”.It was a sentiment shared by Mr Whipps, who said was important for the country’s politicians to “lead by example” and take the vaccine first.
“We want people to feel confident that it’s effective. It’s a good vaccine,” the president-elect said.”We have fortunately been COVID-free, but COVID is still in the world. It’s not going anywhere.”So we need to have something to prevent it from coming to Palau.”
Will Palau stay COVID-free if it gets near-full vaccination?
So far, none of the approved COVID-19 vaccines have sufficient data to show how long immunity lasts, or whether those vaccinated are prevented from spreading the virus.Additionally, no vaccination programs ensure 100 per cent population coverage, as people may choose to opt out from receiving the jab, while some of those vaccinated may receive a vaccine that is not as effective as they were during trials.Preliminary stage three trial data showed the Moderna vaccine was 94.5 effective in reducing the severity of COVID-19, which is well above the 50 per cent efficacy standard the World Health Organization recommends.Because of this, Dr Tukuitonga said it was still vital for Palau to continue its public health measures to reduce the spread, as its small size was also a vulnerability.”If you have a COVID outbreak, the [staff] and material that need to deliver specialist care would quickly become overwhelmed,” he said.”And the option of shipping people off island, which they’ve done for other conditions, I imagine would not be available for COVID-19.
“So [an outbreak] would be devastating.”
(Source: ABC News 05 January 2021)