Samoa has confirmed its first case of coronavirus – a case imported from Australia – after nearly 11 months keeping Covid from its shores.

The positive case was detected in a 70-year-old Samoan citizen who travelled to Apia from Melbourne, landing in the capital on a repatriation flight on 13 November.

“We confirm that there is one positive case after we tested all 274 passengers in quarantine yesterday, in view of the end of their quarantine period tomorrow,” the chief executive of Samoa’s ministry of health, Leausa Dr Take Naseri told a press conference on Friday.

Earlier in the week, there’d been significant confusion over whether Samoa had recorded a case of Covid-19.

A sailor who had been on the same flight back to Samoa had initially tested positive, but this was later inconclusive.

“The sailor on his left nostril tested positive and on his right one tested negative,” Samoa’s prime minister Tuila’epa Sailele Malielegaoi declared on television.

Naseri said the 70-year-old positive case and his wife have been moved to a dedicated Covid-19 isolation ward at the Tupua Tamasese Meaole II Hospital.

“His wife tested negative. He has an underlying condition, but at this time, he has no symptoms, no fever, cough, and displays no symptoms like pneumonia and flu.”

The hotel in Apia, Samoa, where the country’s first case of Covid-19 has been confirmed. The patient, a 70-year-old male Samoan citizen, has been moved to isolation. Photograph: Nadya Va’a/The Guardian

Naseri said healthcare staff, hotel employees, and airport workers had been placed on high alert over potential interactions with passengers currently quarantined.

Samoa has now moved to alert level 1 on its national risk matrix, with the public asked to practice social distancing and wear face masks.

After months keeping the virus from the archipelago’s shores, the confirmation of a positive case has engendered a sense of disquiet, if not panic, in the Samoan capital. Security guards outside government buildings are asking people to wear masks, and dispensing hand sanitise – lifestyle changes familiar around the world for months now, but new to Samoans.

Like many Pacific nations, Samoa quickly shut its borders as the pandemic began to spread, leveraging its geographic isolation to keep the virus out.

Many Pacific nations have fragile public health systems, and populations with significant levels of comorbidities. There remain fears an unchecked outbreak could quickly overwhelm any medical response.

But the isolation has devastated Pacific economies, leading to calls from business leaders, particularly in tourism-dependent countries, to relax restrictions. Governments, too, have been torn between the imperative to repatriate thousands of citizens stranded abroad, and keeping their islands free from the virus.

Siligatusa Pa’ipa’i Fatialofa, the mayor of Tanugamanono village on the outskirts of Apia and a security officer at the airport, said he was surprised by news of a positive case in Samoa.

“I am very concerned and worried for my village. I just want to get home to my wife and kids. I will urge my village to respect the public health notices and rules as set out by our government, so that we remain safe.”



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