Health Minister Sia Piukla told reporters that 31 more people had tested positive for the virus for the second day in a row, nearly doubling Tonga’s active cases to 64, the online Matangi Tonga news portal and other media reported.
While that number may seem low, the nation of 105,000 had so far managed to survive without infection, apart from a case brought by a missionary returning from Africa to Tonga last October who was successfully isolated.
But with the delivery of critically important international aid following the January 15 eruption of a massive underwater volcano and the resulting tsunami, two dock workers tested positive for COVID-19 early last week.
Piukala said that despite efforts to contain the outbreak, it continues to spread and is now being reported in more areas. He said five tests sent to Australia for analysis confirmed it was the Omicron version of the virus.
Three people were confirmed killed in the explosion and tsunami, and several small settlements on the outlying islands were destroyed.
The Red Cross and other health officials have warned that as Tonga tries to deal with both the natural disaster and the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, its fragile health care system is quickly overwhelmed.
At the same time, Tonga’s isolation – which helped protect it from the virus for more than two years – is now an obligation, making it more difficult to provide outside aid.
However, in a sign of hope, Piyukala said that all the latest cases have so far reported only mild symptoms, and that everyone except children had been vaccinated. He did not say how many children were affected.
Tonga’s vaccination program was already performing well, but the current outbreak has prompted thousands of people to get their first shot or booster.
As of yesterday, 98% of the country’s eligible population, aged 12 years and above, had received at least one dose and 88% were fully vaccinated. According to the Ministry of Health, more than 67% of the total population of Tonga have been fully vaccinated.