The Marshall Islands has confirmed its first cases of coronavirus infection. Image Credit: File

Majuro, Marshall Islands: The Marshall Islands in the Pacific has confirmed its first COVID-19 cases - ending the archipelago’s status as one of the few nations in the world to remain virus free.

The Marshalls government announced late Wednesday that two workers at a US Army garrison on Kwajalein Atoll had tested positive for coronavirus after arriving on a military flight from Hawaii on Tuesday.

It stressed the pair - a 35-year-old woman and 46-year-old man - had no community contact during their time in the Marshalls.

“We can assure the public that these are strictly border cases and were discovered while these people were in quarantine, where they remain until this time,” Chief Secretary Kino Kabua said in a statement.

The Marshalls, a group of islands and atolls about halfway between Australia and Hawaii, closed its borders in early March in a bid to keep out the virus.

Pacific island nations were swift to isolate themselves, despite the economic cost, amid fears their poor health infrastructure made them particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.

As a result, the remote island nations and territories of Kiribati, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu are believed to be still free of the virus.

The Solomon Islands lost its virus-free status in early October.

Restrictions eased

Since June, the Marshalls had eased restrictions slightly to allow in some people, mostly US military base workers, subject to a strict three-week quarantine at the Kwajalein garrison.

The two Americans who tested positive had returned negative swabs before departing Hawaii and were both asymptomatic, Kabua said.

She said the woman had previously had COVID-19 in late July and tests were being carried out to see if the case was historical, and not contagious - while the man had no history of infection.

Ebon Atoll Mayor Marie Davis Milne, a frequent critic of border relaxation, said confirmation of COVID-19 was a blow for the nation of almost 80,000.

“What we were worried about has come true,” she posted on social media.

“Now lives are going to be put on hold because a handful of people made the decisions they did for whatever reasons.

“Life as we all knew it will be in limbo until further notice because of the choices of a few.”