Taiwan embassy in Palau to be tested for COVID-19

CNA file photo for illustrative purposes only

TAIPEI (CNA) — The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) on Monday said it will screen staff at the nation’s embassy in Palau for COVID-19 after they received a Taiwan naval fleet that visited the Pacific ally last month, in the wake of 24 crew members testing positive for coronavirus.

Baushuan Ger (葛葆萱), head of MOFA’s Department of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said so far all members of the ROC Embassy in Palau are in good health and none have developed suspected COVID-19 symptoms.

However, the ministry will arrange screenings for them later Monday and Tuesday to check if they have contracted the disease, Ger told a lawmaker during a legislative session Monday.

Ger also said the Palau government has been made fully aware of the cluster infection on board a Taiwanese naval vessel and the Pacific island is now considering expanding its COVID-19 screenings.

Currently, the Pacific ally has no confirmed COVID-19 cases.

With the help of Taiwan’s government, Palau set up its own COVID-19 screening laboratory on April 9, according to Ger.

The laboratory has conducted tests on 30-plus suspected cases. Most of those were conducted on Palauan health workers, customs and police officers who are at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus, Ger noted.

Ger made the comments after the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) announced over the weekend that 24 crew on the supply ship Panshih (磐石), which was part of the Navy’s three-ship “Fleet of Friendship,” tested positive for COVID-19.

The CECC originally suspected that the 24 crew members contracted the virus during the fleet’s goodwill visit to Palau from March 12-15, its only port of call during the month-long trip.

However, it later said health authorities are still conducting an investigation to determine if the 24 crew contracted the virus locally or overseas.

According to a press release issued by Taiwan’s embassy in Palau, an official ceremony welcoming the fleet was held at Malakal harbor in Koror, Palau on March 13, which was attended by Taiwanese Ambassador Wallace Chow (周民淦) and Vice President of the Republic of Palau Raynold Oilouch, among others.

Members of the fleet also staged martial arts and marching band performances and held a softball game at the Asahi Baseball Field on the afternoon of March 13.

The Panshih (磐石), together with a Cheng Kung-class guided- missile frigate, Yueh Fei (岳飛), and a Lafayette class frigate “Kang Ding” (康定), departed Taiwan in early March for a visit to Palau and were at sea for more than 20 days before returning to Zuoying military port in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City on April 9.

The three ships then remain docked at the port for an extra six days with all personnel staying on board to comply with CECC quarantine requirements that only passengers on ships that have not docked at a foreign port for 30 days can disembark.

On April 14-15 that the sailors were allowed to leave the ships and return home.

All 24 of the confirmed COVID-19 infections (22 males and 2 females) served on the Panshih and are under isolation in hospitals, according to the CECC.

The remaining 700-plus crew on the three vessel fleet have been placed in six quarantine locations across the country and at an isolated military camp for 14-days of quarantine, it said.

Meanwhile in related news Monday, Vice Defense Minister Chang Che-ping (張哲平) defended the military’s decision to send the fleet on the goodwill mission amid the COVID-19 pandemic, saying the mission is an important annual mission for the Navy. It is also crucial for the training of Naval personnel and cadets and also promotes closer ties with the nation’s diplomatic allies, he said.

Before the trip, the defense ministry made adjustments to the fleet’s itinerary at the instruction of the CECC, Chang said.

The CECC said the fleet should not make port calls in countries with confirmed COVID19 cases and the mission should be canceled if any member of the fleet develops suspected COVID-19 symptoms. The Navy followed these rules accordingly, he said.