Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister James Marape is warning the country has entered a “red stage” of its COVID-19 epidemic, as Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk expresses concern about growing cases given PNG’s proximity to Australia.
- The surge in cases came after thousands gathered at a state funeral in Port Moresby
- Australia’s High Commissioner to PNG says Australia is keen to help as quickly as possible
- Queensland’s Premier says she’s concerned given her state’s close proximity to PNG
Mr Marape told a press conference that 2,269 cases of the coronavirus have now been detected in PNG, including 97 cases in the past 24 hours, warning that there were likely many more untested people in the community continuing to spread the virus.
He said a “nationwide isolation strategy” will be developed over the next two days, to be announced on Wednesday.
It will not be a “total lockdown” though, he said, but rather entail restrictions to prevent people moving around “without stopping business or government”.
“Remain in your provinces, remain in your villages, remain in your districts,” Mr Marape urged citizens.
Health authorities in Queensland, who have been assisting PNG with testing support, recorded 250 positive coronavirus results out of 500 tests done for the Pacific nation.
Capital city’s isolation ward at capacity
There are concerns PNG’s outbreak will get worse after mass gatherings were held to farewell the country’s first prime minister.
The building that houses the Prime Minister’s Department has been locked down for four days after cases were detected among staff.
The surge came after thousands gathered at a state funeral in Port Moresby for Sir Michael Somare, who died a fortnight ago, with more events scheduled in the coming days.
There are concerns that the number of cases will jump significantly in a couple of weeks’ time as a result.
The country’s health care system has suffered during the pandemic and many fear it won’t be able to handle a further rise in cases.
Port Moresby’s hospital has struggled to keep up with demand.
The COVID-19 isolation ward is at capacity, and dozens of staff at the hospital have tested positive.
Additional temporary beds for coronavirus patients have been filling up fast with seriously ill patients and health workers particularly affected, prompting fears that services may be crippled.
Positive cases in travellers from PNG have been putting pressure on Cairns Hospital, in Far North Queensland.
There are also concerns about vulnerable communities that neighbour PNG in the Torres Strait Islands.
Vaccinations are set to begin on the Islands today, with Dr Anthony Brown from the Torres and Cape Hospital saying the rollout was fast tracked because of the crisis unfolding in PNG.
“We consider it a very real risk that COVID-19 could have incursion across the border,” he said.
Vonda Malone, Mayor of the Torres Shire Council, said “preliminary discussions” were underway for the Australian Government to help vaccinate people on the PNG side of the border, thereby reducing the risk of spread from cross-border travellers.
Earlier this week, Cairns Hospital declared a “code yellow” emergency after six fly-in, fly-out workers from PNG tested positive in hotel quarantine.
Federal government in talks with PNG over concerns
Australia’s High Commissioner to PNG, Jon Philp, said Australia was keen to help as quickly as possible.
“We are right in intensive discussions with the Papua New Guinean medical and government authorities to work out how best we can support,” he said.
Mr Marape thanked the World Health Organization and the Australian Government for their support, saying PNG was still in discussions with Canberra about the provision of vaccines.
Ms Palaszczuk said given Queensland’s close proximity to PNG, “it is something we need to be very serious about”.
“We have been assisting with some tests [there], and out of the 500 tests that our health authorities have done for PNG 250 have come back positive,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
“This is a real concern.
“Papua New Guinea is on the doorstep of the Torres Strait and Queensland, and I hope to speak to the Prime Minister or the Prime Minister’s office in the next 24 hours just to talk about our concerns there, have a look at the flights coming in.”
She said “we are very concerned” as a lot of Queenslanders work or live in PNG at the moment.
There were also growing concerns over the 1,200 workers from Pacific Island countries who were set to arrive into the country to begin work on citrus farms.
As of next month, the first 200 people will be housed at a resort in Farina, about 250 kilometres east of Adelaide, where they will be living in groups of eight during 14 days of quarantine.
All workers will be tested on days one, five, and 12, and if there are any COVID positive cases they will be transferred to a dedicated MIDI hotel in the Adelaide CBD.