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US Army Commander apologises to Marshall Islands

Wednesday 12 January 2022 | Written by RNZ | Published in Marshall Islands, Regional

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US Army Commander apologises to Marshall Islands
US Army Regan Test Site Commander Col. Thomas Pugsley, right, with Members of Parliament Stephen Phillip and Hiroshi Yamamura at the August 2021 opening of parliament in Majuro. He announced changed Covid prevention protocols this week following a breach of entry requirements Photo: Wilmer Joel

US Army Commander Col. Thomas Pugsley offered his personal apology to the people of the Marshall Islands for last week's "breakdown of established protocols" for Army repatriation groups arriving at the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll.

In comments published in this week's edition of the Marshall Islands Journal, the commander said that together with the Marshall Islands government, "Since the incident, we have jointly revisited the protocols and put in place additional measures to strengthen them."

The regular weekly flight of Army personnel being flown on military transport from Honolulu to Kwajalein last week Tuesday was allowed to depart Hawaii before Covid test results were available. Three of the 37 passengers tested positive for Covid immediately after arrival on Kwajalein.

All 37 are in quarantine and the three positive people are considered border cases.

Although Covid variants and infection levels will continue to change, Pugsley said, "we at USAG-KA (US Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll) stand committed to our collaborative work with the Marshall Islands government in our joint objective of helping to keep the nation Covid-19 free."

Pugsley listed several changes to protocols in the wake of Army authorities in Hawaii allowing the 37 USAG-KA personnel to board a military flight to Kwajalein before the results of Covid tests were available for review.

A key change as a result of this violation of protocol is that the commander has "placed flight release authority as a direct responsibility of the USAG-KA commander."

Col. Pugsley outlined the other changes made by USAG-KA to strengthen its Covid-prevention environment:

Switched the provider of lab tests in Hawaii to one that guarantees results in less than 24 hours.

Aerial view of the main island in Kwajalein Atol
Aerial view of the main island in Kwajalein Atoll, which is the headquarters for the U.S. Army's Reagan Test Site, an important missile defense facility. Fish in the lagoon area of the base have been found to have high levels of chemical contamination. Photo: Giff Johnson

Completed a joint review of Marshall Islands entry requirements in conjunction with the Marshall Islands National Disaster Committee and Ministry of Health and Human Services.

Instituted a day five testing protocol in the event that a border case is detected, or whenever an unsterilized flight is utilized. Usually the weekly Army groups arrive on military transport. Occasionally they use the twice-weekly United Airlines flights that also include passengers traveling to Guam who have not been subject to the same quarantine and Covid testing requirements.

Expanded information sharing of quarantine medical data and Covid-19 test results to include the Marshall Islands epidemiologist.

"The safety and well-being of everyone in the Marshall Islands is of critical importance," said the commander. "Since the beginning of the pandemic our collaborative efforts with the Marshall Islands government have resulted in the successful repatriation of roughly 2,500 persons."

USAG-KA "is firmly committed to preventing the coronavirus from entering the Marshall Islands," he said. The Marshall Islands and USAG-KA jointly developed multi-layered Covid-19 prevention protocols that "worked as designed, and successfully captured and isolated the three border cases," the commander added.

Marshall Islands authorities confirmed earlier this week that while the three Covid positive individuals remained positive in tests taken this past weekend, all 34 of the other passengers on the flight last week tested negative. They remain in quarantine for a two-week period and their release next week depends on a final negative Covid test.