SALT LAKE CITY — Dozens of families from American Samoa who have been stranded in Utah since the COVID-19 pandemic began are a step closer to returning home.
In March, the American territory closed its borders to prevent an outbreak of the coronavirus. Travel to the island has been halted ever since, leaving those who were traveling at the time no avenue to come back.
“I just want to go home,” said Deidra Harrington-Latu. She traveled to Utah in August of 2019.
Her husband and three children were set to join her in Utah in March. Then the pandemic changed everything.
“I have three children in Samoa, and they closed the borders,” Harrington-Latu said. “That was devastating.”
More than 100 residents of American Samoa are stranded in Utah. Roughly 600 are stranded in various states around the country.
“It’s been very hard, especially on my children from being separated from their father for so long,” said Lorena Seu.
This week, American Samoa’s health department opened an application for residents to begin the process to return.
The island has avoided an outbreak of COVID-19 as zero cases of the virus have been recorded since the pandemic began.
Travel to American Samoa is paused until February 1, 2021. After that, the possibility exists for residents to return.
The road home will be long.
Those on the mainland will be required to travel to Hawaii. There, they must quarantine for 10 days before flying from Honolulu to American Samoa.
Once home, they will be forced to quarantine for 14 more days.
“That’s my daily prayer with my son, that I will get to see them again,” Harrington-Latu said.
The application process is a reason to be optimistic, but with hundreds of people needing to travel and quarantine, it could be some time before everyone returns home.
“If it does start in February, the people who are last on the list might be here until the end of 2021,” said Kenneth Kuaea.
As they wait, those who are stranded have formed a special bond. They support each other, making the best of what has been a grueling and cruel situation.
“Because of our culture, we are Samoan,” said Aioevaga Tuna. “We are related. Blood doesn’t tell us that.”
In a request for comment, a spokesperson for American Samoa wrote, “Newly elected Governor Lemanu Mauga is presently working on the Repatriation of American Samoa's residents off-island.”