A missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has brought the first coronavirus case to the island nation of Tonga, media outlets in New Zealand and Hawaii have reported, and the country went into lockdown Tuesday.
Tonga’s isolation has helped keep it safe, and it is among the few remaining nations in the world that have avoided outbreaks of COVID-19. It reported its first-ever coronavirus case Friday.
Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa said in a radio address that the infected traveler was among 215 passengers who had arrived on a flight from Christchurch, New Zealand, last Wednesday and had been isolating at a quarantine hotel, The Associated Press reported.
On Wednesday, a church spokesperson in Salt Lake City confirmed that the missionary tested positive after he returned to his home country. The missionary had completed his service in Africa and returned to Tonga on a flight sponsored by that country’s government.
According to the church, the missionary was fully vaccinated and was tested twice before boarding the flight from New Zealand. While quarantining in Tonga, he tested positive. He remains in quarantine.
The infected missionary had been working overseas and arrived in New Zealand six weeks ago to catch last Wednesday’s repatriation flight back to Tonga, 1News reported.
The person was showing no symptoms as of Saturday, Richard Hunter of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints told 1News.
Honolulu Civil Beat reported that the young man was returning from a mission in Africa and had spent several weeks working in New Zealand before being able to return to Tonga. Everyone who had been in contact with the young man had tested negative, according to a church spokesperson.
The case has prompted thousands of people to flood the capital’s main vaccination center, 1News and other outlets have reported.
According to CNN, the weeklong lockdown for the main island of Tongatapu includes an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, ordering residents to remain in their homes for all but “essential reasons.” Public transportation has been halted, and schools, churches, restaurants, bars and clubs have all been ordered to close.
About 86% of the population has had at least a single shot of the vaccine, Honolulu Civil Beat reported. But the country faces big challenges should the virus take hold, due to its under-resourced health system.
There are more than 66,000 Latter-day Saints in Tonga, according to the church, and the country has a population of about 106,000. More than 18,000 people of Tongan descent live in Utah, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Christchurch had been free from the virus for months until last week, when four community cases were reported after a returning resident caught the virus while in Auckland, where an outbreak has been growing since August.
According to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all of its missionaries are “encouraged to safeguard themselves and others by being vaccinated.” Although missionaries are “responsible to make their own decisions about vaccination,” American missionaries headed to other countries on or after Aug. 1 must be vaccinated or they will be reassigned to a mission in the United States.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.