A large group of Latter-day Saint missionaries became Kiribati’s first COVID-19 cases when they tested positive on arrival back home earlier this month after returns already long delayed by the pandemic.

Kiribati swiftly instituted a national lockdown in the form of a 24-hour curfew after 38 missionaries and 16 other passengers arrived home on a Jan. 14 flight chartered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Kiribati opened its international borders on Jan. 10, and church officials followed an intense protocol for the repatriation flight of 54 passengers.

Like other island nations, Kiribati closed its borders when the pandemic began even to its own citizens abroad, including Latter-day Saint missionaries, who serve for a year and a half to two years.

Some missionaries who returned home to Kiribati on a flight chartered by the church last month had been away for more than 3 12 years, church spokesman Sam Penrod told the Deseret News.

Every passenger was vaccinated and all had tested negative for COVID-19 at least three times — Jan. 2, 8 and 13 — reported Stuff, a New Zealand-based media outlet.

But when the church-chartered plane from Fiji landed in Kiribati and the 54 passengers entered the quarantine per national health protocols, 36 tested positive.

“The government of Kiribati authorized the flight, but with strict COVID-19 requirements for entering the country,” said Penrod, the church spokesman. “All of these requirements were met including vaccination for the passengers, multiple negative COVID-19 PCR tests, and a 14-day quarantine upon arrival. During this quarantine, several of the passengers tested positive for COVID-19. The 38 missionaries, who will all be released from their missionary service upon completion of the quarantine period, are cooperating fully with local health authorities.”

Latter-day Saint young men who serve missions receive 24-month assignments. Young women serve for 18 months.

Penrod said some of the returning Kiribati missionaries had been away from home for as long as 44 months.

In November, a vaccinated Tongan missionary who had tested negative twice in New Zealand while waiting to return from his mission in Africa became his home country’s first case of COVID-19 when he, too, tested positive while quarantined on arrival.

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“Some Tongan elders have been on their missions for three years and sisters over two years,” Elder Vaiangina “Vai” Sikahema, a General Authority Seventy for the Church of Jesus Christ, said during the faith’s worldwide general conference in October. “They wait patiently with the faith for which our people are known.”

Tonga had kept its borders closed prior to that repatriation flight because its intensive care unit capacity for treating severe COVID-19 cases was limited to about five patients. The missionary’s positive test result was a weak one, he was asymptomatic and his second test was negative.

In similar repatriation news unrelated to the church, Samoa’s government also announced a 48-hour full lockdown over the weekend after 15 coronavirus cases arrived on a flight from Australia.

Kiribati’s presidential office said there was “now an assumption that covid-19″ was spreading in the community, the Post reported.

“The only way that we could fight this virus is through complete vaccination,” the office said, according to the Post. “It is critical that all work together to do our part in combating this pandemic.”

About 90% of the population has received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, with 53% having had two shots, according to Radio Kiribati.

The passengers who tested positive after returning to Kiribati were doing well, according to news reports.

Since the vaccines became available, the church has required all missionaries who travel outside their home nation to be vaccinated.

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Kiribati (pronounced keer-uh-bas) shut its borders in late March 2020. Its two previously recorded COVID-19 cases were people who returned to the islands by ship in May 2021 and recovered while in isolation on the vessel, Stuff reported.

Kiribati straddles the equator north of Tahiti and northeast of Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Australia and New Zealand.

The “zero COVID” policies and travel bans instituted by many remote island nations during the pandemic have helped keep them virus-free or close to it as they work to vaccinate their populations. Many of their citizens, including Latter-day Saint missionaries, remain scattered around the world waiting to return home.