Approximately 340 islands in the western Pacific -- more than 4000 miles away from Hawaii -- make up the Republic of Palau, a country with which the United States has deep ties that date back to the end of World War II. Recognizing the success of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution by the U.S. government, Palau requested assistance through the U.S. Embassy in Koror – their largest city – and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services answered the call. Captain Erik Vincent of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps led a team of 14 National Disaster Medical System (NDMS) responders on a three week mission to vaccinate more than 5600 people in Palau.
As the U.S. kept pace to reach and exceed the Biden Administration’s goal of 200 million COVID-19 vaccinations in their first 100 days of the administration, the request from the island nation represented a strategic partnership that has been ongoing since the two countries signed a Compact of Free Association in 1982, where the U.S. agreed to provide various types of support for the islands including defense support as well as health and medical services. In fact, the small group of islands even have two U.S. zip codes. HHS recognized the need to assist Palau’s health and medical service in preventing COVID-19 from reaching the islands, which could devastate the relatively small population of more than 17,000 who rely on tourism, farming and fishing for their livelihood. Especially when, to date, there had been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Palau – meaning there was no recorded community or person-to-person spread of the novel virus.
The word ‘Palau’ roughly translates in one of the island’s native languages to “village,” and it certainly took a village to coordinate all the necessary actions required to get a team from NDMS on the ground to help the Palau Ministry of Health. Captain Vincent led the NDMS team through the various requirements including every responder being fully vaccinated prior to departure, a 5-day restricted movement period upon arrival, and multiple negative COVID-19 tests.
The team knew that the long trip to the islands and all of the requirements were worth the effort to keep Palau free of COVID-19 cases. Some NDMS team members traveled as far as from the East Coast. After working with the U.S. Embassy and the Palau Ministry of Health to plan out vaccinations across the islands, the vaccinators provided the people of Palau over 300 shots per day of either the Johnson&Johnson or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines – sometimes having to carry the vaccine in coolers as they ventured to more remote parts of the islands.
We were able to recently catch up with Capt. Vincent, the team Pharmacist Dr. Sridevi Pochincherla, as well as their fellow teammates Heather Shannon, Stacy McCarthy and Jeff Allen, to speak with them about their deployment to Palau.
Capt. Vincent and Dr. Pochincherla were honored that their team was able to work directly with the President of the small island nation and U.S. Ambassador John Hennesey-Niland. President Surangel Whipps Jr. accompanied the team on a hospital boat, where they were able to deliver vaccines in the harbor from the boat and then travel inland to vaccinate home-bound patients. Dr. Pochincherla fondly remembers the joy and excitement people had when they were welcomed into Palaun homes. This mission reminded Dr. Pochincherla of her own grandmother and family in South Asia. “That was a really special moment for me to be able to provide that service and receive that level of appreciation,” Dr. Pochincherla said.
Nurses Heather Shannon and Stacy McCarthy recalled the amplified sense of purpose the mission gave them, both having worked on the COVID-19 pandemic response in the U.S. beginning with the repatriation missions of 2020. “It felt like we were delivering hope one shot at a time that we will see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel,” Nurse Shannon said. “It was an unexpected bonus that we were able to experience a little bit of their history, culture and natural biodiversity.”
For Paramedic Jeff Allen, this was his first COVID-19 deployment, something that is extremely rare among NDMS responders who have frequently deployed more than two or three times for the federal response. Jeff was unable to deploy as frequently as some responders because he was dealing with the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. as part of his everyday job as a paramedic in King County, Washington. Jeff’s was excited to get to go to Palau having seen the devastating impacts of COVID-19 at home from the early days of the pandemic.
The team was able to provide more than 5,600 vaccinations to the people of Palau and Nurse McCarthy recalled what it was like to work on the different aspects of the pandemic. “I worked with repatriation of COVID-19 passengers from a cruise ship early last year, in a COVID ICU in the middle of last year, and at a COVID vaccination site earlier this year. It’s been fascinating to see the evolution of the pandemic and be deployed for distinct aspects of it. First, our team was supporting ICUs that were overwhelmed with COVID patients. Now, we’re vaccinating people to, hopefully, put an end to this pandemic. Our NDMS teams have been there every step of the way, supporting all aspects of the fight against COVID.”