Hundreds of American Samoans have begun flying to Oahu from across the United States to quarantine before returning to their homeland nearly a year after the U.S. territory closed its borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

The decision has kept American Samoa, a U.S. Pacific island territory about a six-hour flight southwest of Hawaii, relatively safe from the pandemic. Only four cases have been identified there, all aboard two container ships.

But that has come at a high emotional and financial cost to more than 1,000 American Samoans who have been stranded since March, most of them in Hawaii.

Olafou Laulani and his family are finally flying home to American Samoa. Courtesy: Olafou Laulani

A year ago, Olafou Laolagi and his wife, Onolina, flew from Pago Pago to Utah, where her parents live, so that she could give birth to their fourth child.

They left two of their children, ages 4 and 6, in American Samoa with Laolagi‘a parents. Onolina gave birth in May, and the couple planned to return home in August.

Then the pandemic hit, and they were stuck.

“We were devastated when we heard that,” Laolagi said.

Quarantining In Waikiki

It’s been tough to cope with a long uncertain separation from their young sons. They had brought their 3-year-old with them, but had they anticipated the border closure, Laulani said they would have definitely flown the whole family to Utah.

“Honestly it’s like the worst feeling,” he said. There were practical challenges too. Laolagi had left behind his farm and the work he did at his parents’ store. He had to get a job in Utah driving trucks to help pay for their stay in Utah and to send money back home.

For months, American Samoa kept pushing back repatriation efforts until a Jan. 29 flight from Honolulu was approved. The territorial government is coordinating the Hawaii quarantine with the state and the City and County of Honolulu, which has reserved the Waikiki Shell parking lot on three separate days for coronavirus testing.

The Laolagi family was informed a week ago that they were accepted into the repatriation program and immediately bought plane tickets and got tested for COVID-19. They’re participating in Hawaii’s Safe Travels program, which requires a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of departure.

The government of American Samoa is also requiring a physicians’ note, a 10-day quarantine at the Waikiki Sands Hotel, and two negative tests while in Hawaii before departing for Pago Pago, the territorial capital.

Laolagi‘s family was among 166 people who were tested Monday at both the Waikiki Sands Hotel and the Waikiki Shell parking lot.

Gingerlei Porter from the CDC Foundation has been working with the American Samoan government to coordinate repatriation efforts. She said demand to return to American Samoa is high and growing.

“We are surpassing 1,200 as we speak of stranded people registering for the program,” Porter said.

The Laolagi family is part of the first group of American Samoans scheduled to fly back to the territory since the pandemic hit last year. Two more groups will be tested for coronavirus at Waikiki Shell on Feb. 7 and Feb. 22.

The first group includes families who have been living in Utah, California, Oregon, Texas and the East Coast, Porter said.

Most of the stranded people have been living in Hawaii since the pandemic began. Many were visiting family, seeking medical care or going to school.

“The way that we’re going home isn’t the way we wanted to go home.” — Kueni Hisatake

Not everyone has been able to withstand the long wait. Kueni Hisatake and her husband left Pago Pago on March 26 and were shocked when the border shut the next day. At first, Hisatake was relieved because she wanted her islands to be safe. She and her husband had planned to stay in Hawaii for several months to help their 34-year-old son Anthony with his cancer treatment.

But in July, Anthony got a terminal diagnosis. His last wish was to return home and see his siblings and extended family and ancestral land. He died in Honolulu on Dec. 22.

When Hisatake received her repatriation approval last week, her feelings of relief and gratitude were mixed with grief. In contrast to their Samoan and Christian cultural traditions, she and her husband cremated Anthony. They plan to bring his ashes on the flight.

“The way that we’re going home isn’t the way we wanted to go home,” she said. “The pain and the trauma that we’ve gone through with fighting for repatriation to return home and the loss of our son is still very, very raw in our emotions and so it’s bittersweet.”

American Samoa Footing The Bill

American Samoa is among several Pacific island governments that closed their doors when the pandemic hit. Hundreds of citizens of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia have also been stuck in Hawaii, including some families who have been hoping to fly home to bury their loved ones.

Hawaii Lt. Gov. Josh Green’s office has been helping the city set up COVID-19 testing sites for the American Samoan repatriation effort and providing cleaning supplies, masks and gloves. The American Samoan government is paying for the hotel stays, transportation and coronavirus testing, Green said.

“American Samoa and the Marshall Islands and other communities that are in the Pacific, they have such deep roots in Hawaii,” Green said. “They are de facto part-time citizens in Hawaii when they’re here.”

Green noted that Samoans and other non-Hawaiian Pacific Islanders have been hard hit during Hawaii’s coronavirus pandemic.

“The more attention we can focus on the Pacific Islander community, the better results we’ll get,” he said. “If this doesn’t work we could then see a big outbreak of COVID-19 in American Samoa that would boomerang into Hawaii.”

Click here to apply for repatriation through the American Samoa Department of Health.

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