Mark Baker / AP
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 countries in the world to have avoided epidemics of the virus. Like many of its neighbors, Tonga’s isolation has helped keep it safe, but it faces great challenges if the virus takes hold due to its underfunded health care system.
The neighboring nation of Fiji avoided major outbreaks until April, when the Delta variant tore through the island chain, infecting more than 50,000 people and killing at least 673 people.
Tonga Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa said in a radio address that the traveler was among 215 passengers who arrived on a flight from the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Wednesday and had isolated themselves in a quarantine hotel.
Mark Baker / AP
The prime minister is scheduled to make an announcement on any future lockdown on Monday, according to the Matangi Tonga news site.
Christchurch had been free of the virus for months until this week, when four community cases were reported after a returning resident caught the virus in Auckland, where an outbreak has been developing since August.
New Zealand health officials said the traveler to Tonga was fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine and returned a negative test before leaving for Tonga. Officials said they would work with their Tongan counterparts to confirm the case and provide more details in the coming days.
Tonga’s health ministry director general Dr Siale ‘Akau’ola said it was unfortunate that the plane had already left Christchurch before news of the cases in the community arrived, Matangi reported. Tonga.
‘Akau’ola said all frontline workers, including health workers, police and airport staff who were on duty when the plane arrived, were also quarantined after confirmation of the positive case. He added that everyone who worked near the flight had been vaccinated.
Located in northeastern New Zealand, Tonga is home to around 106,000 people. About 31% of Tongans are fully vaccinated and 48% have received at least one dose, according to the Our World in Data research group.