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Tonga in lockdown after COVID spread from wharf workers

This photo shows the Australian Navy's HMAS <em>Adelaide</em> docked at Vuna Wharf in the Tongan capital of Nukualofa on January 26, 2022. The <em>Adelaide</em> delivered aid following the January 15 eruption of the nearby Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai underwater volcano.
Enlarge / This photo shows the Australian Navy’s HMAS Adelaide docked at Vuna Wharf in the Tongan capital of Nukualofa on January 26, 2022. The Adelaide delivered aid following the January 15 eruption of the nearby Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai underwater volcano.

The archipelago nation of Tonga went into lockdown Wednesday after detecting five cases of COVID-19 and its first community transmission. This happens amid recovery efforts from a massive underwater volcanic eruption and tsunami in mid-January that covered islands in ash and cut off communication.

The nation of 106,000 residents including 171 islands—45 of which are inhabited—has almost completely thwarted the pandemic virus to this point. The five new cases bring Tonga’s total COVID-19 case count to six, including one case detected in a hotel quarantine in October.

But an outpouring of international aid following the eruption raised widespread concern that Tonga’s COVID-free streak would be broken. The Australian navy ship HMAS Adelaide that docked last week was loaded with aid supplies and 23 known COVID-19 cases.

The five cases now found in Tonga include two wharf workers and three subsequent cases in a family, a woman and two children. The spread from the wharf workers to the three family members represents Tonga’s first instances of community transmission.

How the five infections came about is still not completely clear. Tongan officials have insisted on contactless aid deliveries, with supplies being unloaded from ships and planes into quarantine areas where they are left isolated for 72 hours.

Tonga’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, told Reuters the two infected wharf workers were stationed at a different wharf than where the Adelaide was docked and other aid was delivered.

“The wharf that had the case is a different one used for commercial cargoes,” he said.

The Australian Defense Forces’ Chief of Joint Operations Greg Bilton also said that the Adelaide did not appear to be the source of the infections. Lt. Gen. Bilton added that samples from the two wharf workers will be tested to determine the infections’ origin.

At a press conference Tuesday, Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni said that authorities were trying to determine which ships the two infected wharf workers had unloaded.

In the meantime, the nation is under lockdown. Schools closed, and government workers are given time off, The Washington Post reports. There will also be no boat or air travel among Tonga’s islands, and people are encouraged to wear masks in public settings. The government released a list of places where the virus may have spread from the known cases, including a church, a kindergarten, a bank, and several stores. The lockdown will be reassessed every 48 hours.

About 60 percent of Tonga’s residents have been vaccinated, including the two infected wharf workers.

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