Tongan returning missionary who tested positive for COVID-19 likely not infectious, health officials report

A returning missionary who had tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving home to Tonga is likely not infectious, Dr. Siale ’Akau’ola, the chief executive of Tonga’s health ministry, reported to MatangiTonga.to, a local news site, on Friday, Nov. 5.

The missionary was one of eight missionaries on a government-sponsored repatriation flight from Christchurch, New Zealand, which touched down on the remote Pacific nation on Wednesday, Oct. 27. He had previously tested negative for the coronavirus, but a routine test after arrival came back positive, becoming Tonga’s first case of COVID-19 and prompting the country to begin a seven-day lockdown on Tuesday, Nov. 2.

The young man, who had completed his mission to Africa, was fully vaccinated and received a negative test result twice before boarding the flight, confirmed Sam Penrod, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to the Deseret News.

All the proper COVID-19 protocols were followed, Penrod said.

The missionary, who is asymptomatic, has remained in quarantine, as well as the 214 other passengers on the flight, and all the health workers, police officers and airport staff who were on duty when the plane arrived.

Tohiminiti Latu's home in Tonga on May 23, 2019. Latu is bishop of his ward and has 10 children and one grandchild.
Tohiminiti Latu’s home in Tonga on May 23, 2019. Latu is bishop of his ward and has 10 children and one grandchild. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News, Deseret News

The returned missionary tested a “weak positive” from his first test after arrival and was retested on Monday, Nov. 1, which came back negative. To confirm the negative test, a third test was administered, which revealed another weak positive result on Friday, Nov. 5.

“We believe this person is a historical case and had been sick with COVID-19 previously,” ’Akau’ola said to MatangiTonga.to following Friday’s third test results. Regarding whether the returned missionary is contagious, ’Akau’ola said: “We believe he is not infectious. This is not a new virus and we at the Ministry of Health are satisfied with the test results.”

’Akau’ola said the Tongan returned missionary will be staying in quarantine for 21 days while the 214 passengers from the flight will be tested next week in their second COVID-19 tests while in quarantine. Front-line workers will be tested on Sunday.

Poasi Tei, minister of meteorology; energy, information, disaster management, environment, climate change and communications, said if they all test negative, that confirms there is no risk to the community and the country will go back to the normal restrictions.

After closing its borders in March 2020, Tonga has avoided any COVID-19 infections but has made it difficult for many who were away before the pandemic to return.

Sunset in 'Uiha, Tonga, in 2007.
Sunset in ‘Uiha, Tonga, in 2007. Credit: Sarah Jane Weaver

Elder Vaiangina Sikahema, a General Authority Seventy and native of Tonga, noted during his October general conference talk that “hundreds, perhaps thousands of young Tongan missionaries” have been kept from returning to their beloved homeland and in some cases have extended their mission service to three, as opposed to two, years or two years as opposed to 18 months.

“They await patiently with the faith for which our people are known,” he said.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Church has strived to take precautions to both protect its missionary force and prevent the spread of infection. In March 2020, tens of thousands of missionaries were released or sent to their home countries for reassignment. 

In November 2020, the Church began the “deliberate, cautious” process of assigning a limited number of missionaries beyond their home countries. Missionaries were instructed to follow established public health guidelines during travel and then to quarantine for the required period. “The safety of our missionaries and those they serve is our top priority,” Church spokesman Daniel Woodruff said at the time.

In April of this year, the Missionary Department encouraged all missionaries and prospective missionaries to “safeguard themselves and others by being vaccinated” and explained that those who choose not to be will be assigned to serve in their home countries.