Elders from Tokelau’s Nukunonu Atoll on the pier Monday morning, dressed in white and singing songs, held a banner that read: “Welcome.”
In the distance, a small inflatable boat headed towards them with a New Zealand defense officer dressed in full protective gear and 12 valuable boxes. Inside the boxes were just over 700 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, enough to cover the 346 Nukunono residents who are eligible for the vaccine.
“I am relieved and overjoyed. It is also overwhelming, ”said Aukusitino Vitale, chair of the Tokelau Covid national committee. He had spearheaded community efforts to secure vaccines since March 2020, and for him, the arrival of the first boxes of the vaccine meant he could now sleep soundly.
“To be honest with you, I hadn’t slept well since March, this was the culmination of efforts between the New Zealand government, the New Zealand Immunization Advisory Center, UN agencies and our own team on the ground. in Tokelau, and so on Sunday morning, when the ship was close, I finally felt at peace, “he said from his office in Tokelau.
Tokelau is a New Zealand dependent territory about 3,500 km north of Auckland with a population of about 1,500.
It is one of the most inaccessible atolls in the world. With no airstrip and shallow coastal waters, the atolls can only be reached with things, canoes, or small rafts.
In the pre-Covid era, visitors to Tokelau had to fly to Samoa and then board a ship to Tokelau, which operated every fortnight and took 24 to 32 hours to complete, depending on the destination of the atoll.
To get the vaccines safely to Tokelau, the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Ministry of Health, the Defense Force and the Tokelau government worked to find a route and method of transport that did not compromise the chain. of cold.
The result was that the HMNZS Wellington, a 76-man New Zealand defense force vessel, transported vaccines to the open sea off the reef near the islands. The helicopters were intended to carry boxes from the ship, but bad weather made them unable to take off from the aircraft carrier and instead, small rigid-hull inflatable boats were deployed on each of the Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu atolls.
Tokelau is one of the few places in the world that has remained Covid-free during the pandemic. Its borders have been closed since March 2020, which meant that during the delivery of the vaccines, a contactless delivery had to be observed.
Back in New Zealand, the healthcare team was still nervous about the weather and made sure the vaccines were kept at the right temperature.
Rosa Toloa, Tokelau’s health director, was in contact with them to ensure the availability of hospital staff and equipment.
“We don’t have air access, so the challenge was to get the vaccine to Tokelau and maintain the proper temperature of the vaccine from New Zealand to Tokelau to ensure the efficacy of the vaccine,” he said.
But even preparing for the vaccine’s launch faced challenges. Tokelau’s health sector, which is made up of three doctors, one from each atoll, and 36 nurses, had to be trained to administer vaccines through Zoom, an effort that was nearly impossible given the poor internet connection.
“We had to train vaccinators about a new vaccine, there is a lot of new information about the vaccine that we must know and for which we must be well prepared,” said Toloa. “The challenge was to train the nurses and update the vaccinators through a mobile internet network which was very challenging. But we did it and brought the nurses up to speed. It took months of preparation for everyone. “
With a trained staff, equipped hospitals, and a willing population, the Tokelau health department successfully administered more than 60% of the first doses in the first two days of launch.
As Vitale, the head of Tokelau’s national Covid committee, felt the pinch of his first dose on Monday, his sense of relief was not just for him but for his small island community.
“It has been a blessing, it gives us comfort and confidence that our people are protected from the devastation of Covid-19 and the possible loss of who we are as a culture and a people. Now we feel much more secure. “