COVID-19 Corps Staff ‘Miracle Workers’ Help American Samoans Get Home Safe
By Hannah R. Buchdahl
When the CDC Foundation first reached out to jurisdictions across the United States to assist with COVID-19 response efforts, American Samoa didn’t need the type of surge staff the Foundation was hiring for its COVID-19 Corps. At that time, the unincorporated U.S. territory in the South Pacific didn’t require contact tracers, case investigators or extra epidemiologists— American Samoa had zero cases of COVID-19 and planned to keep it that way.
In March of 2020, as the pandemic started its global rampage, American Samoa closed its borders, effectively shutting out the virus, as well as more than a thousand American Samoans stranded in Hawaii, the U.S. mainland and abroad. Their repatriation, or safe return home, would take some strategic planning—and time.
Toward the end of 2020, American Samoa was ready to gradually let its citizens come home. And that’s when the CDC Foundation re-entered the picture, to help with the repatriation effort. For this effort, the CDC Foundation team worked with the American Samoa Department of Health (AS-DOH) on a customized solution to address the territory’s unique, emerging staffing needs.
The Foundation hired four people based in Honolulu to help coordinate a complex, voluntary repatriation plan that involved testing and quarantining groups of American Samoans at a hotel in Hawaii for two weeks, before putting them on a chartered flight home.
“CDC Foundation not only provided the needed funding for competitive staff wages and benefits, the organization’s reputation as a direct employer played an important part in recruitment and attracting health care workers to what would otherwise be seen as an ‘unattractive’ high-risk, temporary employment opportunity, involving development and implementation of a new pre-travel quarantine program from ground zero,” said Cecilia Alailima, MD, head of the repatriation program for the AS-DOH.
Alailima praised the Foundation’s awareness of and respect for cultural sensibilities, adding, the four hires “are all women of Samoan ancestry who each openly expressed a sincere commitment to the mission to keep repatriated travelers safe, and to keep the territory COVID-free.”
On February 1 of this year, the first repatriation flight arrived in the capital Pago Pago, with all 159 passengers testing negative for the coronavirus.
“They are literally miracle workers,” said Leiema S. S. Hunt, MPH, of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in describing the Foundation staff. Hunt is based in American Samoa and serves as the primary point of contact for the CDC Foundation and AS-DOH. “It’s amazing the work they have done. They managed to oversee 159-plus people and not break the bubble.”
Those ‘miracle workers’ are: Ipo Hemaloto, RN, MD, COVID-19 Corps public health nurse manager; Salilo “Lilo” Foifua, COVID-19 Corps public health nurse assistant; Hotavia “Ginger” Porter, COVID-19 Corps logistics team leader, and Faauliulito “To” Tuala-Tamaalelagi, COVID-19 Corps inventory management specialist. All completed their assignments at the end of March 2021, having helped establish a successful model for safe repatriation.
The team managed the administration of the day-to-day needs of American Samoans in the process of repatriation—everything from daily health assessments, COVID-19 testing and monitoring, to travel assistance, lodging, and socially-distanced activities throughout a two-week quarantine.
“We really did put our heart and soul into this effort,” explained Hemaloto, who just recently earned her medical degree. “It’s very dear to us to be able to help our people, especially our stranded citizens return home, and we look to them as family members.”
The four women built what they describe as a “community” reliant on partnerships, collaboration and cultural respect.
“This was a whole community effort, reaching out to different partners, agencies and nonprofit organizations,” Porter explained. “All assisted in whatever way they could, knowing that the goal is to get people home safely.” Porter worked hand-in-hand with the Governor’s Office, Hawaiian Air, the Transportation Security Administration, the Hawaii State Department of Health and others to assure both physical and emotional needs were met as American Samoans went through the final stretch of a stressful and long-awaited journey home. To keep their spirits up, Porter organized safely-distanced exercise classes, and even secured loaner iPads for the kids.
“Being part of this operation has been a great experience,” said Foifua. “For a whole year we’ve been hearing our people—hearing their plea—wanting to go back home to their families and having all these challenges. So at the beginning of the operation, when we got to call and let people know they have the chance to be on a certain flight, it’s an overwhelming thing, a GOOD overwhelming thing. Being that voice, telling them ‘hey you’re going home now’, it’s such a good feeling.”
And that, they all agree, has been the ultimate reward.
“I feel thankful and blessed,” said Tuala-Tamaalelagi on her last official day as a member of the CDC Foundation surge staff. “We carried out the CDC Foundation mission with pride.”
This article is supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $68,939,536 with 100 percent funded by CDC/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement by, CDC/HHS or the U.S. Government.