This week, after receiving 2,800 doses of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine through the U.S. program Saturday, the country swiftly began a mass vaccination plan for its population of 18,000.
Palauan President-elect Surangel Whipps Jr. said in a message Tuesday that the country may be the first country to complete its vaccination program if everything goes according to plan. He attributed this to the country’s small size and the aid of the U.S. government.
“The arrival of the vaccine gives us hope,” he said. “We are doing everything to support our Ministry of Health in the rollout of the vaccine.”
Under the guidelines published by the Ministry of Health on Saturday, health-care workers and other front-line workers are first in line, followed by those 75 and over and people with underlying medical conditions. The Moderna vaccine required two doses delivered 28 days apart.
While the United States struggles with its own distribution issues, the hope in Palau is to have the vast majority of the country’s adult population covered in the next few months. Palau’s small size means that even small supplies of the vaccine can go a long way.
As he received his first dose of the vaccine Monday, current Palauan President Tommy Remengesau Jr. also thanked the United States. “We are small so there’s always that apprehension that maybe we would be the last in line,” he told the Island Times. “But now that it’s here and now that we see eventually 80 percent of the people can get vaccinated, I am very fortunate and excited.”
Palau’s Ministry of Health said last month that it hoped nearly all of the population could be vaccinated by April, though Palauan Ambassador to the United States Hersey Kyota said Tuesday that the plan was contingent on how fast it could get doses from the United States.
That time frame could make Palau one of the first countries to be almost fully vaccinated. Israel, which has rolled out an ambitious plan with a goal of 150,000 vaccinations a day, is on a similar schedule, while the Vatican, the smallest country, is hoping to vaccinate most residents this month.
Palau’s place in Operation Warp Speed comes from its long-standing ties with the United States. After World War II, the United States administered the country and some of its neighbors as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.
The country voted to become independent in 1994 but retained significant connections to Washington. Those ties have not weakened. In September, Palau’s government suggested that the country could host a U.S. military facility.
Palau, along with the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, received funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (Cares) Act passed in March.
Under Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration’s ambitious response to the novel coronavirus, hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines are due to be distributed in the United States.
The Trump administration did not join Covax, a World Health Organization-backed plan to share vaccines with low- and middle-income nations. But a small fraction of the doses in Operation Warp Speed will go to U.S. territories such as American Samoa and Guam, and to the freely associated states of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau.
The small size of Pacific Island nations has proven a blessing and a curse during the pandemic. Although they were able, for the most part, to shut their borders to keep the virus out, they lacked the public health infrastructure to deal with a large-scale outbreak should one occur.
Palau did not originally have the resources to store and administer the first U.S.-approved vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, as it required storage at ultracold temperatures as low as minus-80 degrees Celsius. The Moderna vaccine can be stored at refrigerator temperatures.
Small populations can confer logistical advantages. And the country is lucky that it already has strong vaccination programs, with almost all children receiving vaccines as a condition for schooling, Whipps told The Washington Post in an interview last month
The country did not see the vaccine hesitancy reported in other countries, including the Pacific island nation Samoa that saw a measles outbreak in which more than 80 people died in 2019.
“Even in the U.S., you know, you hear about the [anti-vaccination] protests,” Whipps said. “But here I think we’re more open to vaccines. We’re used to it.”
If Palau does achieve mass vaccination, it may ease some pandemic-related economic strain. Border closures and other restrictions have decimated the travel industry and plunged the country into a recession.
The Asian Development Bank has estimated that Palau’s economy shrank by 9.5 percent in 2020 and that it could decline another 12.8 percent this year — a far greater economic decline than seen in the United States, the country with the largest coronavirus outbreak.
Whipps, who will take presidential office later this month, told The Post that the pandemic had forced the government to take on huge debt that would take years to pay back.
But the possibility of mass vaccination has brought hope for better times ahead. “It will be a good example of how to get it done,” Whipps said.