Tonga Sees Small COVID Outbreak Tied to Ships Bringing Aid After Earthquake

Tonga went into lockdown Wednesday after a small outbreak of COVID-19 was reported from workers believed to be handling a shipment of supplies needed after a volcanic eruption triggered a tsunami that devastated the islands last month.

There had been concerns with international ships and planes delivering supplies potentially bringing COVID to the Pacific nation, which had mostly managed to keep the disease at bay. The concerns became reality when two wharf workers tested positive Tuesday after handling incoming cargo shipments, local media Matangi Tonga Online reported.

The two cases were detected after conducting routine testing on frontline wharf workers. Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said five cases have been reported thus far with the patients placed in hospital isolation. One person has recovered, but remains in quarantine, local media reported.

The three new cases include a spouse and two children, aged three and four, who were in close contact with one of the wharf workers, Tonga's health minister Saia Piukala told local reporters.

An immediate lockdown was issued following the reported cases and is scheduled to last until Sunday. Limited businesses such as shops, gas stations, and roadside food vendors are allowed to open starting Saturday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Matangi Tonga reported.

It is unclear exactly which shipment the wharf workers picked up the infection from. Sovaleni said in a news conference Tuesday night they are trying to identify which ship could have been responsible.

"We have the record of ships that had been here at a time that could have spread this virus. We are looking at goods that were offloaded," he said.

The Australian Navy ship, HMAS Adelaide, had 23 reported COVID cases on board when it docked in Tonga to unload aid in a quarantine zone, Reuters reported. The Australian Defense Force's Chief of Joint Operations Greg Bilton said it doesn't appear the infection came from their ship, but samples from the two workers would be sent to Australia for testing.

At least 726 COVID tests have been conducted on the island so far. It's not clear how many people have come into close contact with the dockworkers, but the Tongan government released a list of possible locations for transmission including a bank, church, a kindergarten and several shops, the Associated Press reported.

Piukala said they have been able to identify at least seven people who were in close contact with the workers but they have all tested negative. The individuals were placed in home isolation as a precaution, local media reported.

Paula Taumoepeau, a business owner, told AP Friday that Tonga has a small hospital and limited resources, but he's not sure how the health system will hold up.

"We are lucky we've had two years to get our vax rate pretty high, and we had a pretty immediate lockdown," he said.

According to local media, 87 percent of Tonga's eligible population is fully vaccinated while 97 percent have received at least their first dose.

Tonga COVID-19 Outbreak
Tonga was placed on lockdown Wednesday after two cases of COVID-19 were reported from dockworkers handling cargo. Above, members of the Australian Defence Force unload humanitarian supplies on January 20 at Fuaʻamotu International Airport. LACW Emma Schwenke/Australian Defence Force/Getty Images