The Beta strain of COVID-19 first identified in South Africa is now sweeping through the South after initially being diagnosed in a cluster at a Muslim school on 9th June, the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) reported on Monday.
Dr Apisamai Srirangson, assistant spokeswoman for the CCSA, said the recent cluster in the Muslim religious school of Margaz Tabligh preaching centre in Yala’s Muang district, has already spread to 402 patients across 12 southern provinces.
There were 111 positive cases reported in Narathiwat, 102 in Yala, 46 in Satun, 46 in Pattani, 36 at Songkhla, 18 in Krabi, 13 in Phatthalung, 10 in Nakhon Si Thammarat, nine in Surat Thani, five in Phangnga and three each in Trang and Phuket.
The Margaz community has a population of 4,000, including around 500 students from 17 provinces who frequently gather for social activities such as formal dinners in which they share utensils and trays, and perform religious rites with no mask-wearing, according to Dr Srirangson.
The school has been closed and access to and from nearby areas heavily restricted as active case finding is conducted. Those who have had any close contact with the students have been asked to report to healthcare officers.
Dr Srirangson said the Eid al-Fitr festival in July, in which feasts are held to celebrate the end of Muslim fasting will go ahead this year and Asis Pitakkumpol, Sheikh-ul-Islam of Thailand has asked Muslims to be mindful of the outbreak situation and follow disease control measures.
Meanwhile, Chief of the Department of Medical Sciences, Dr Supakit Sirilak acknowledged that laboratory tests had all but confirmed the schools to be the sources of the Beta infections, and more work was being done to trace its route into the community in the first place in order to stop further clusters arising.
Dr Sirilak warned that the Beta variant is of particular concern due to studies showing that it can lessen the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
“We have seen both Alpha and Beta variants in the school and it is necessary to control the disease in particularly infectious areas like these. However, the rate of transmission is quite slow so it can be controlled quickly if patients are found and quarantined,” he said.
Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said that he has already passed an order for an increase in action to control the outbreak, saying there would be no cause for concern if all those infected were processed within the Thai healthcare system. However, there was a chance that illegal migrants could be spreading it too so close cooperation with the Ministry of Interior would be needed too.
He added that the ministry is considering extending quarantine from 14 days to 21 days or more for arrivals from countries where the strain is particularly prevalent, adding that the academic committee is going to discuss the proposal.