PEAS Christopher Szumlanski/AP
BANGKOK — Coronavirus cases continue to rise rapidly in Tonga, and tests have confirmed that the particularly contagious omicron variant is behind the isolated Pacific island nation’s first community outbreak since the start of the pandemic. pandemic, officials said Thursday.
Health Minister Saia Piukala told reporters that 31 more people had tested positive for the virus, nearly doubling the number of active cases in Tonga for the second consecutive day to a total of 64, the news portal reported. online Matangi Tonga and other media.
Although the number may seem small, the nation of 105,000 has managed to escape so far without any infections, except for a single case brought by a missionary returning from Africa to Tonga last October. , which was successfully isolated.
But with critically important international aid deliveries following the January 15 eruption of the massive undersea volcano and resulting tsunami, two dockworkers tested positive earlier this week latest for COVID-19.
Despite efforts to contain the outbreak, it has spread and is now being reported in more areas, Piukala said.
Five tests that had been sent to Australia for analysis confirmed it was the omicron variant of the virus, he said.
Three people were confirmed killed in the eruption and tsunami, and several small settlements in the outer islands were wiped out. A thick layer of volcanic ash also covered the main island and contaminated much of the drinking water, and may have damaged crops.
The only fiber optic cable to the island was severed during the eruption, making communications sporadic at best. With several areas now completely closed, the Ministry of Education has started homeschooling with teachers giving lessons over FM radio.
The Red Cross and other health authorities have warned that as Tonga tries to cope with both the aftermath of the natural disaster and the coronavirus outbreak, its fragile health system risks being quickly overwhelmed. .
At the same time, Tonga’s isolation – which helped protect them from the virus for more than two years – is now a liability, making it more difficult to provide outside assistance.
In a sign of hope, however, Piukala said all the latest cases have so far reported only mild symptoms and all have been vaccinated except for children.
He did not specify the number of children affected.
Tonga’s vaccination program was already running well, but the current outbreak has led to thousands of people coming in for their first or booster shots.
As of Wednesday, 98% of the country’s eligible population aged 12 and over had received at least one dose and 88% were fully immunized. Over 67% of Tonga’s total population has been fully immunized, according to the Ministry of Health.