Mormon Missionary Responsible for Tonga's COVID Lockdown, Vaccination Frenzy

A missionary from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon church, is responsible for Tonga's first COVID-19 case, according to international media outlets.

Before the announcement on Friday of the case, the Polynesian island nation had been touted as one of the few places in the world that had remained free of the coronavirus. After the confirmed positive case, Tonga went into lockdown Tuesday, and the nation has been overwhelmed by the resulting demand for vaccinations.

Outlets from New Zealand and Hawaii broke the news that the person with COVID-19 was a Mormon missionary who had recently arrived in Tonga from Christchurch, New Zealand. Richard Hunter of the Church of Latter-day Saints told 1News in New Zealand that the missionary was currently in quarantine and showing no symptoms as of Saturday.

Tonga Prime Minister Pohiva Tu'i'onetoa said in a radio address that the traveler who had tested positive was among 215 passengers who had arrived on a flight from Christchurch on Wednesday. He had been isolating at a quarantine hotel when test results showed he had COVID-19.

Tonga king
Tonga recently announced its first positive COVID-19 case, which is now believed to have come from a Mormon missionary. In this photo, Tonga's King Tupou VI arrives for a presentation by school children on July 2, 2015. in Nukualofa, Tonga. Getty

New Zealand health officials confirmed that the missionary was fully inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine and had tested negative for COVID-19 before departing for Tonga, according to the Associated Press.Before last week, when four cases were reported, Christchurch had been free from COVID-19 for months. The cases were traced to a resident who had recently visited Auckland, which has experienced a recent outbreak.

The missionary had recently returned from a mission in Africa before spending several weeks in New Zealand, Honolulu Civil Beat, a news website based in Hawaii, reported. A church spokesperson told the outlet that everyone who had been in contact with the traveler had tested negative for the virus.

Dr. Siale 'Akau'ola, the chief executive of Tonga's health ministry, told online newspaper Matangi Tonga that the missionary tested for COVID-19 the mandatory three times after arriving in Tonga's capital, Nuku'alofa.

"It could be due to this person being fully vaccinated and the virus is struggling to grow, or this person had contracted COVID-19 before," 'Akau'ola said.

"It's better we just identify it as positive now and go into lockdown as a precaution, rather than to regret it later when it's too late," he added.

The Tongan government announced a weeklong lockdown for the main island Tongatapu beginning on Tuesday. There is an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew during this time, and all residents are ordered to stop working and stay inside their homes except for emergencies. Nonessential businesses are closed and social distancing will be enforced.

Thousands of people have rushed to vaccination centers for COVID-19 shots following the announcement of the positive case, Matangi Tonga reported.

Tonga has a population of about 100,000. According to Our World in Data, 31.7 percent of the country's residents had been fully vaccinated as of October 25.

Fiji, an island nation near Tonga, avoided significant outbreaks until April when more than 50,000 people became infected, and 673 died.

"A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who had completed his missionary service in Africa, tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Tonga. He was part of a group of ten missionaries who were returning to their home country on a government sponsored repatriation flight from New Zealand," Sam Penrod, a spokesperson for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in a statement to Newsweek.

"Proper COVID-19 protocols were followed," he continued. "The missionary was fully vaccinated and was tested twice before boarding the repatriation flight. While quarantining in Tonga on his arrival, he was retested and tested positive. He remains in quarantine."

Update 11/03/21, 4:45 p.m. ET: This story has been updated to include a statement from the the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.