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American Samoa is one of the few places in the world with zero reported COVID-19 cases. The U.S. territory, 2,600 miles from Hawaii, shut down its borders in March to commercial flights to prevent the spread of the virus to its 55,000 residents. The cost? An estimated 562 American Samoan residents are stranded and still waiting for when they can get home. Laura Fong reports.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has touched nearly every country in the world and all 50 United States, one U.S. territory has zero reported cases of the coronavirus.
American Samoa shut down its borders and halted all incoming commercial flights in March. But shutting down its borders has come at a cost: Hundreds of American Samoans cannot go home and are stranded across the U.S.
NewsHour Weekend's Laura Fong has more.
They always ask what, what time are you going to come back home? When are you going to come back home?
Fiti Aina is stranded in Honolulu, Hawaii, 2,600 miles away from his home, his wife Danielle and their six kids, who are in American Samoa. His youngest, Jolizabeth, just turned a year old last week.
My youngest started walking, and it makes it so hard, not to be there next to them.
I told my kids, you know, just pray on it. Pray on it.
His wife Danielle works as a sixth grade teacher.
It's not going to be the same. There's always that piece missing. We need to put that piece back in place. That's our only wish, not only me, but my kids, too, is to have him, have him home for the holidays.
The Aina family live in American Samoa, a U.S. territory with about 55,000 residents and a five-hour flight from Honolulu.
In March, American Samoa halted all incoming commercial flights due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, with no commercial flights available, Governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga has allowed two chartered flights to leave the island for those in need of medical treatment, as American Samoa has limited medical resources.
Fiti Aina needed gallbladder surgery and when he got on one of those flights in July, he was told it was a one-way ticket.
It was a sacrifice that I made when I heard there's a one-way ticket, but I was praying that one day that they're going to have a flight to go back home.
Four months later, he still doesn't know when he can return home.
It's gonna get to that point when, like getting crushed down and your hope it's not there anymore.
Now, Fiti Aina is one of an estimated 562 American Samoa residents trying to get back from the United States.
The majority are stranded in Hawaii, Washington state, California and Utah.
If there was a flight in the next few weeks, they would be wanting to get on that flight?
If there was a flight tomorrow, they would do whatever they can to get home because they want to get home to their families.
Eileen Tyrell is president of Tagata Tutu Faatasi Alliance of American Samoa. In Samoan, it means "people standing together."
The Alliance is pressing for the American Samoa government to repatriate its residents as safely and as soon as possible.
It has become a therapeutic platform, it has become an informational hub.
Tyrell began organizing the group when her mother Maraia Malae Leiato, became stranded earlier this year while visiting Tyrell in Washington state.
While many American Samoan residents are U.S. nationals, meaning they can work and visit the U.S. easily, some are visiting on visitor visas, like her mother.
Tyrell estimates as many as 100 American Samoa residents are stranded here on six-month visas, with a costly fee to renew.
A lot of them had already paid out of pocket because they were afraid, they were very afraid of having ICE come after them. And they have had to scramble to pay for the $455 extension visa fee.
On Friday nights, the Alliance holds a weekly "wellness check-in" for people to connect and share their stories.
We're all going through the same thing, we're stranded here and we miss home.
They go through depression, they go through grief, you know, and what they're able to process. It has been an emotional journey, financial strain for the families.
There is also the fear of getting the coronavirus.
According to the Pacific Islander COVID-19 response team, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders contract the virus at disproportionately high rates in states where data is collected by race.
In Hawaii, Pacific Islanders — including Samoans — are the most likely to be hospitalized or die from the coronavirus. more than any other racial or ethnic group.
And is that also a concern of some of your stranded residents here that they could get COVID in the waiting process?
That's a concern for everybody, every single person. My biggest, biggest fear is that someone of the stranded residents who is waiting will get the virus and die.
Samoans, Pacific Islanders in general, they live in multigenerational homes because, you know, family is such a huge thing for them.
While Fiti Aina was waiting in Hawaii to go home, he found out that he has enlarged heart, putting him at high risk for complications if he contracts COVID-19.
It's hard for me to go find a job. If I am going to get the virus, it's end game for me.
Back in American Samoa, a COVID-19 task force and the local health department have outlined a four-stage repatriation plan, including a 10-day quarantine in Honolulu before the flight home and a 14-day quarantine after arrival.
Earlier this month, the governor approved a provisional date for January 19th for the first repatriation flight.
Aina doesn't know if he will be on that flight, or if it will be delayed, but for him and his family, it could not come soon enough.
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Laura Fong shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of topics, including U.S. politics, education, the arts and urban transit. She also covers breaking news for the Saturday and Sunday broadcasts. Before joining NewsHour Weekend, Laura worked on the first three seasons of the CNN documentary series "Inside Man" with Morgan Spurlock. Through Teach for America, Laura taught first grade for two years in Houston. She has a B.A. in electronic media from the University of Oregon.
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