The ultra-transmissible omicron coronavirus is now spreading in Tonga, causing the archipelago nation’s first COVID-19 outbreak as it tries to recover from an underwater volcanic eruption and tsunami on January 15. The disaster killed three, wiped out several small settlements, blanketed the main island in a thick layer of ash, and severed the only fiber-optic cable to Tonga, severely hampering communications.
Prior to the eruption, the island nation—home to around 106,000 people—had logged only one confirmed case of COVID-19, which was caught in a quarantine. But amid international aid and relief efforts, two wharf workers tested positive earlier this month, as did three of their family members.
Tonga’s case total is now up to 66, with 31 newly reported cases Thursday.
In a press briefing on Thursday morning, Tonga’s minister of health, Dr. Saia Piukala, said five samples sent to Australia for testing were confirmed Wednesday night to be the omicron variant, according to a report by Tongan news site Matangi.
So far, all the cases have been mild, the health minister reported, and all of the infected adults had previously been vaccinated. Some children have also tested positive, but information about those cases was not released.
Rest at home
Vaccinations have been increasing in Tonga amid the outbreak. As of Wednesday, 98 percent of vaccine-eligible Tongans have received at least one shot, and 88 percent are fully vaccinated, according to an Associated Press report. Overall, more than 67 percent of Tonga’s population is now fully vaccinated. That number is up from about 60 percent at the start of February.
Many areas of the nation—which includes 171 islands, 45 of which are inhabited—are under lockdown. The AP notes that the Education Ministry has started homeschooling programs, having teachers give lessons over FM radio.
Still, officials have warned residents that cases are spreading to new areas and are expected to continue to rise. “It’s important for the people of Tonga [to be aware] that the virus or COVID-19 numbers will increase,” Dr. Piukala said in the press briefing.
He urged residents to abide by health restrictions and get vaccinated. Officials are hoping to slow the spread so they can ramp up a campaign to provide booster shots. Tonga is expected to receive 10,000 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses Friday, Matangi reported.
Dr. Piukala stressed that people should stay home, wear masks, distance, and practice good hand hygiene, all of which can prevent the spread of the potentially deadly disease. “That’s why we should respect protocols,” he said. “And the virus will respect our protocols and we will survive. And if we advise you to stay put, but you don’t, then you don’t love your family and the people of Tonga.”
“It’s better to rest at home than rest in peace,” he added.