Officials Defend COVID-19 Screening Measures After Indian Man Tests Positive

Walairat Chaifoo DDC

After the discovery of an Indian patient with COVID-19 who stayed in Thailand for three months, questions have been raised about whether the Public Health Ministry is implementing measures aggressive enough to identify asymptomatic people at Thailand’s borders.

Mass testing is internationally regarded as a measure to control the coronavirus pandemic. Rapid detection and quick medical treatment are key in the fight against the outbreak.

Walairat Chaifoo, director of the Epidemiology Bureau, said the Department of Disease Control (DDC) had set up a guideline requiring all hospitals to monitor the number of patients with lung infections or respiratory problems, which are symptoms of the disease, and should help catch any new infections.

She said a spike in the number of patients coming into hospitals with those symptoms should serve as a warning, but there’s been no increase.

On average, about 2,000 patients with respiratory problems are tested for the SARS-CoV-2 virus a day at hospitals nationwide.

Dr Chaifoo said the DDC had also expanded its monitoring efforts to cover “at-risk” groups, especially migrant workers. She added mass tests were done at their places of employment in June, and the results showed zero infections.

From May to July, the department tested over 90,000 people at risky areas, and the deadly virus was not detected in any of the people.

“We have never lowered our guard for the surveillance system,” Dr Chaifoo said. “Mass testing is still going on to detect the deadly virus.

“But what we have seen more often is many cases of people who don’t show signs of illness or long-time infection,” she added. “It means the virus still exists in the country and people must not ignore self-preventive measures.”

The Indian patient, 37, is among 95% of people infected with the disease, they are asymptomatic. Luckily, the virus was detected as he was undergoing a physical check for a work permit in Krabi province.

The laboratory test result on 4th November showed he was positive for COVID-19, prompting public health authorities to initiate disease control measures under their coronavirus surveillance system.

Although the Health Ministry concluded the Indian man did not cause further infection, it is clear a local infection could still occur through an asymptomatic patient.

Opas Karnkawinpong, acting chief of the DDC, said some recently detected cases were attributed to people who did not initially show COVID-19 symptoms. He said those who are asymptomatic can still transmit the disease.

He said that to avoid contracting the virus, people should wear face masks, wash their hands and practise social distancing.

Thailand detected the first case of local transmission in a male inmate who was believed to have been infected after working as a DJ in a pub in Bangkok.

The patient was asymptomatic, and the kingdom would later detect additional cases, including a French-Thai woman who contracted the disease while staying in an alternative state quarantine facility. The Indian patient was also asymptomatic.

Regarding the case of a South Korean soldier who tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to his country following his attendance at the Cobra Goal training session last week in Rayong province, the DDC is working closely with South Korea’s health ministry to identify whether he contracted the disease in the kingdom or not.

The number of infections in Thailand is low because there are less than 4,000 cases with 60 deaths. Meanwhile, the number of global cases is 50 million, and infections are expected to spike around the world in the next two months.

Despite the good news that the Pfizer vaccine is close to completion and distribution, the kingdom has a long road ahead before it can get its doses.

The National Vaccine Institute said the kingdom could get the jabs six months after the Pfizer vaccine is launched. The government hopes to inoculate half of the population by the first half of next year.

Meanwhile, the ministry has proposed shortening the mandatory quarantine period from 14 days to 10. The plan is expected to be considered by the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) next week.

The ministry believes there is no substantial difference between being quarantined for 10 days or 14 days because most infections are detected within five days.

It also estimates only 100 of the 10 million Chinese tourists expected to visit the kingdom per year will have COVID-19.

The ministry is confident the public health system will be able to manage future infections.

Currently, only people with special visas can enter the kingdom for a long stay. The government is planning to open the country for more tourists by the year’s end.

Meanwhile, Prasit Watanapa, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Mahidol University, said the state should not rush into reopening tourism, even if visitors come from countries with a low number of infections.