WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — The island nation of Tonga reported its first-ever case of COVID-19 on Friday after a traveler from New Zealand tested positive.
Tonga is one of the few remaining countries in the world to have avoided outbreaks of the virus. Like many of its neighbors, Tonga’s isolation has helped keep it safe, but faces major challenges as the virus gains a foothold due to its under-available health system.
Nearby Fiji avoided significant outbreaks until April, when the delta variant ripped through the island chain, infecting more than 50,000 people and killing at least 673.
Tonga Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa said in a radio address that the traveler was one of 215 passengers who arrived on a flight from the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Wednesday and had isolated themselves in a quarantine hotel.
The prime minister planned to make an announcement on Monday about any future lockdowns, according to news website Matangi Tonga.
Christchurch was free of the virus for months until this week, when four cases were reported in the community after a returning resident contracted the virus in Auckland, where an outbreak has been growing since August.
New Zealand health officials said the traveler to Tonga had been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine and returned a negative test before departing for Tonga. The officials said they would work with their Tongan counterparts to confirm the matter and provide more details in the coming days.
The director of the Tongan Ministry of Health, Dr. Siale ‘Akau’ola, said it was unfortunate that the plane had already left Christchurch before news of the community’s cases got there, Matangi Tonga reported.
Akau’ola said all frontline workers, including health personnel, police officers and airport personnel on duty when the plane arrived, were also quarantined after the positive case was confirmed. He added that all those working near the flight had been vaccinated.
Tonga, located northeast of New Zealand, is home to approximately 106,000 people. About 31% of Tongans are fully vaccinated and 48% have had at least one dose, according to research group Our World in Data.