More than 1,000 residents of American Samoa and the Republic of the Marshall Islands who have been stranded in Hawaii for up to a year because of COVID-19 are expected to start returning home Monday after quarantining here and satisfying testing requirements.
Once home, they will face an additional 14-day quarantine.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, several Pacific island nations sealed their borders — even to returning citizens — to protect against the spread of COVID-19. American Samoa, a U.S. territory roughly 2,600 miles south of Honolulu, has been particularly wary of allowing residents to return after a deadly 2019 measles epidemic.
Up to 800 American Samoans in Hawaii are scheduled to quarantine for 12 days at the White Sands Hotel in Waikiki, according to Lt. Gov. Josh Green’s office. When they land back home, they will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test and undergo an additional quarantine period, Green’s office said.
The first repatriation flight is slated to fly Monday from Honolulu to Pago Pago, according to Green’s office. The original departure date of Friday was pushed back after five passengers tested positive for COVID-19.
“American Samoa is working very hard to have no cases, as you can imagine,” Green said. “That’s why they’re being so careful.”
Most of the cost for flights, COVID-19 tests and hotel rooms will be paid by American Samoa and the Marshall Islands.
“Our team is helping out,” Green said. “We’re helping to make sure there’s enough services and supplies for the community to get through quarantine.”
The Marshall Islands, located 2,300 miles west of Hawaii, began its repatriation program in October. Marshallese representatives met with Green’s staff to ask for supplies for the quarantined residents. So far, 65 have left since Jan. 15, but additional flights had not been scheduled.
There are an additional 250 Marshallese in Hawaii wanting to get home.
It’s unknown how many flights will be needed to accommodate all the stranded American Samoans and Marshallese in Hawaii.
Earlier in the pandemic, the first group of Marshallese were quarantined for two weeks at the White Sands Hotel. The second group quarantined at the Pacific Monarch Hotel. After returning home, Marshallese residents must quarantine at the Kwaj Lodge for an additional 21 days.
Pacific Islanders, excluding Native Hawaiians, have made up 30% of COVID-19 cases in Hawaii even though they represent only 4% of the population.
Josie Howard, program director of We Are Oceania, which provides support to Micronesians in Hawaii, said she was relieved when she heard the news that the state and the Marshall Islands were working together to get the stranded islanders home.
“It’s such a great relief, especially for the families we’ve been servicing since March,” Howard said. “We would love to see them go back home to their loved ones.”
‘We’re ready to go home’
Ilalio Polevia, 50, and his daughter, Rita, 17, are on the list to go home to American Samoa. But they are waiting for an email from the government to tell them which flight they’ll be on. Once they receive approval, they can head to Waikiki to quarantine.
They’ve been stranded in Hawaii since March and have moved around Oahu six times. The two Polevias have been separated since November because of the difficulty in finding living arrangements. Ilalio currently lives in Waipahu with a pastor and his family, and his daughter is staying in Salt Lake while taking online schooling.
“It’s pretty hard because I don’t get to see my daughter,” Polevia said. “All we can do is contact each other by phone, but she’s pretty busy with her online school. When I call her, sometimes she answers and sometimes she doesn’t.”
Polevia has a wife and four other children, ages 4, 10, 11 and 14, who live in American Samoa. His wife has been stuck in Samoa, unable to return home, since attending her father’s funeral in June. Polevia’s children are currently living with their aunt.
He said that whenever he calls his family, his 4-year-old daughter cries for him.
Rita Polevia said she’s anxious to see her younger siblings, especially her two sisters.
“The first thing I want to do when I get back to Samoa is visit my sisters,” she said. “All I want is to see their smile again.”
Jessica Lani Rich, president and CEO of the Visitor Aloha Society of Hawaii, has been helping the Polevias since March. VASH, which assists tourists who have been victims of crime or experienced other trauma while in Hawaii, helped with their hotel costs for about 10 days in March and worked with other nonprofits to find them a place to stay.
“Our agency can only help them for so long,” Rich said. “He’s our longest case that we’ve had on record. Normally it’s very short term.”
Rich said she’s waiting for a happy ending for the Polevias.
“He knew I would never let anything happen to him or Rita,” she said. “He would say, ‘We’re going to be homeless,’ and I said, ‘No you’re not.’ I kept my promise.”
ON THE NET:
>> Apply for the American Samoa repatriation program at americansamoapublichealth.com.