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'Model for the rest of the world' — Covid-19 vaccination programme underway in Palau

Palau's president and president-elect rolled up their sleeves for their coronavirus vaccines this week, as the country aims to become one of the first in the world to innoculate its population against Covid-19.

Palau's outgoing president, Tommy Remengesau, receives his Covid-19 vaccination. Source: Office of the President, Palau

By Bernadette Carreon of rnz.co.nz

The country started administering the Moderna vaccine, which was delivered on a special flight from the US on 3 January. Authorities hope to vaccinate 1400 people this week, starting with health workers and key decision makers, then the elderly.

Tommy Remengesau, who leaves office in a few weeks, said he was delighted to see Palau become one of the first countries to receive the vaccine.

"Anytime you lose one life to something that is preventable is very sad. The economy has been heavily impacted by Covid-19 environment, the only solution to this is to get vaccinated, I am really happy that it is already taking place," he said.

Remengesau said he was confident efforts to vaccinate Palau's population of 18,000 would continue after he left office, adding that it was vital people's health was addressed before reopening the economy. Palau's borders have been closed for most of the past year, with the tourism industry completely shuttered.

"We are hoping for the economy to come back, the health of the people should be addressed first and that's the critical point," Remengesau said.

"Please get vaccinated."

Surangel Whipps, who will be sworn in as president on 21 January, also encouraged Palauans to get their shots, saying he was getting his publicly to show people it was safe and effective.

"If we are asking people to do it, we should be able to do it as well," he said.

US Ambassador to Palau John Hennessey-Niland, who also received the vaccine, said: "It's fantastic that Palau has been Covid-free for many months, it's been a model for the rest of the world, and the process here shows that it can also be a model on how we can do this."

Niland said the US was committed to providing Palau the vaccines needed to have the entire population innoculated.

"One hundred per cent confident that we will continue regularly delivering vaccines to Palau and we will have everyone vaccinated here," the ambassador said.

The vaccines were delivered as part of a US operation to distribute coronavirus vaccines to its states, territories and freely-associated countries in the Pacific. The Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia have also started programmes, while in American Samoa, 1019 people have received their vaccinations.

Last weekend's flight saw 2800 doses of the Moderna vaccine delivered to Palau. The country's health ministry has asked for 30,000 to cover the two doses needed for every person.

Gaafar Uherbelau, the deputy incident controller at the Palau Health Ministry's Emergency Operation Centre, said that may take some months to deliver, but he was confident they would get to 80 percent coverage.

Monica Miller contributed reporting from Pago Pago.