Guam battles rise in COVID cases, despite a successful vaccine campaign
By Kelly Kasulis Cho
Just as tourists were starting to return to Guam, the island has reported a record number of new COVID cases, a surge that is filling up hospital beds and dashing hopes of an economic recovery despite a successful vaccination campaign.
The average number of daily new cases has more than doubled to 165 in the past two weeks, according to a New York Times database. The tourism-dependent U.S. territory in the Western Pacific has vaccinated 70% of its total population with at least one shot.
Guam’s pandemic response was lauded by some as a success story, as the government contained the virus with mask mandates, quarantines for travelers, temporary closures of nonessential businesses and daily vaccination drives organized by the Guam National Guard. But in July, after reaching its vaccination goals, the government began to relax its travel restrictions and lift social distancing measures.
With case numbers rising, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued its highest-level warning about traveling to Guam. The local government began requiring workers and people 12 and older to show a vaccination card to enter restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, sports stadiums and other facilities.
The Guam Tourism Bureau has also suspended its Air V&V program, a vaccination-vacation deal that offered all visitors a vaccine for $100 or less per dose. Chartered flights from Taiwan brought hundreds of vaccine tourists to the island.
“We’ve just been watching the numbers go up and up, and I don’t think we’re going to get any more tourists with this,” said Bob Odell, the owner of a local water sports shop called Guam Ocean Adventures. “It’s really starting to take a toll economically.”
Cases began to rapidly rise in mid-to-late July. Public schools opened classrooms for the new year in mid-August, but they reverted to online learning last week amid the surge.
Aaron TuQuero, a worker at the ExpressCare Clinic in the Micronesia Mall, said that his team tested about 30 to 50 people per day and had seen a “great number of positive patients.”
“We’re at a high risk of contracting the virus from other countries, and more tourists have been coming in,” he said. “There have not been a lot of live gatherings on the island itself, as far as I can tell.”
Even before the pandemic, Guam had a chronic shortage of nurses and doctors, with only two hospitals serving the entire population, in addition to a U.S. naval hospital that grants limited access. On Friday, the government said that 47 people were hospitalized for COVID and that four were in intensive care units.
“For a small island, that’s a lot,” Odell said. “You have to stay concerned about this. We can’t let our guard down.”