Earlier this month, a plane, chartered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and carrying mostly former missionaries, inadvertently brought the first cluster of COVID-19 cases to Kiribati, an island nation between Hawaii and Australia.
Shortly after the pandemic began in 2020, Kiribati had closed its borders — even to its own citizens living abroad, including full-time Latter-day Saint missionaries, who typically serve between 18 months and two years.
Some of those on the flight had been away for more than 3½ years, church spokesperson Sam Penrod told the Deseret News.
The 54 passengers (38 of them missionaries returning home) arrived Jan. 14 on the plane from Fiji, and 36 of them tested positive for the virus. They were immediately taken to a quarantine facility, according to Stuff, a news site out of New Zealand, but the outbreak triggered the Central Pacific republic’s first stringent masking and lockdown procedures.
All the passengers “took three COVID-19 tests before leaving Fiji on Jan. 2, 8 and 13 during their pre-departure quarantine period, which began on Dec. 31,” the source reported. “Any passenger who tested positive during this period was excluded from the flight.”
Upon arrival in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, “the passengers were tested again and immediately escorted to a quarantine center,” Stuff noted. “All passengers were vaccinated prior to arrival, and were doing well” as of last week.
The flight from Fiji marked the first plane to arrive since the nation reopened its borders this month, The Washington Post reported. Until now, the island had reported two infections, The Post added, from a pair of ship passengers in May. The two quarantined on the vessel.
A church spokesperson declined Monday to comment on the flight — its purpose and its passengers.
On Tuesday, though, the church-owned Deseret News quoted Penrod saying that “the government of Kiribati authorized the flight, but with strict COVID-19 requirements for entering the country.”
“All of these requirements were met including vaccination for the passengers, multiple negative COVID-19 PCR tests, and a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. During this quarantine, several of the passengers tested positive for COVID-19,” Penrod told the paper. “The 38 missionaries, who will all be released from their missionary service upon completion of the quarantine period, are cooperating fully with local health authorities.”
In recent years, Kiribati has been one of the Utah-based faith’s “greatest success stories,” independent Latter-day Saint demographer Matt Martinich said Monday.
From 1975, when students returned from church schools in Tonga as missionaries, to today, membership has steadily risen to more than 21,000, or nearly 20% of the country’s 120,000 population.
“A lot of the outer islands are opening to missionaries,” said Martinich, who tracks LDS Church growth, “and in some areas, [the church] is one of the largest denominations.”
Indeed, the church’s website reports that it is “recognized as a positive influence in the social, educational, and cultural development of the country and is the third-largest Christian denomination in the republic.”
At the October 2020 General Conference, church President Russell M. Nelson announced that a temple, Kiribati’s first, would be built in Tarawa.
Formerly known as the Gilbert Islands, the Tarawa Atoll was the site of a fierce World War II battle in November 1943 between the United States and Japan.
Late last year, a returning LDS missionary brought the first coronavirus case to the island nation of Tonga (whose population is nearly 63% Latter-day Saint).
The infected missionary was fully vaccinated and tested twice before boarding the flight from New Zealand. While quarantining in Tonga, the young man, who had served a proselytizing stint in Africa, tested positive.