by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: KCS/WikiCommons/CC

A COVID-19 CLUSTER linked to a quarantine hotel at the Novotel Taoyuan International Airport hotel and among China Airlines pilots has led to the cancellation of some public events and the contact tracing of those infected. This marks the end to two-and-a-half months in which Taiwan saw no cases of domestic transmission of COVID-19.

Taiwan did not see any cases of domestic transmission of COVID-19 following the end of a cluster of cases linked to the Taoyuan General Hospital in late January. The Taoyuan General Hospital cluster—which was then-Taiwan’s largest COVID-19 cluster during the pandemic—saw over twenty infected with COVID-19 and several thousand individuals quarantined who were either visitors to the hospital or workers there.

The Novotel Taoyuan International Airport hotel. Photo credit: Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi/Flickr/CC

The current cluster is comparable in size to the Taoyuan General Hospital cluster, with 26 having become infected with COVID-19, and seems to have similar origins. The Taoyuan General Hospital cluster originated from the fact that doctors and nurses involved in treating COVID-19 patients themselves became infected with the coronavirus. Similarly, the cluster involves cleaning workers at the Taoyuan International Airport quarantine hotel becoming infected, likely while cleaning the rooms of individuals that were COVID-19 positive and undergoing their mandatory quarantine period after entering Taiwan. Two housekeepers, a housekeeping manager, a contractor working on plumbing and electricity, and a caterer that worked at the hotel were among those infected, with some of their family members also infected.

Likewise, as part of this cluster, China Airlines pilots seem to have become infected with COVID-19, then spread it onto their co-workers, family members, and possibly the workers at the Novotel Hotel. Ten China Airlines pilots have been infected, along with eight of their relatives. The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) that coordinates Taiwan’s COVID-19 response is currently investigating the origin of the cases. It is questioned as to whether China Airlines pilots caught COVID-19 domestically or abroad, as well as whether they could have caught COVID-19 from pilots from other carriers. China Airlines has had to cancel some flights due to the cluster.

This is not the first case of domestic transmission of COVID-19 originating from pilots, though a previous case that took place last December only occurred because the pilot in question broke quarantine. It is possible that the CECC will order stricter quarantine measures for pilots because of the current cluster, with a trial program that would have shortened quarantine periods for pilots to seven days having originally been scheduled to begin this month, and quarantine exempted for vaccinated flight crews. It is to be seen how this affects plans to halve quarantine periods for all individuals who arrive to Taiwan fully vaccinated.

Otherwise, the CECC has stated that it will quarantine the flight crew members of foreign airlines at one hotel going forward. China Airlines pilots and flight crew members, around 700 people, have been tested for COVID-19, while those infected have been given vaccines. Several hundred have been quarantined in Taipei, as a result of contact with the cluster.

As such, the CECC has publicized the travel information of individuals that are part of the cluster, while some visitors to the Novotel Hotel have been ordered to isolate or work remotely. Some public events have been canceled, with travel anticipated ahead of Mother’s Day and higher travel than usual having taken place over Labor Day last weekend.

As Taoyuan is where Taiwan’s major international airport is located, it should not be surprising that both the more recent clusters and the Taoyuan General Hospital cluster broke out there. It is to be seen whether the current cluster will lead to calls to lockdown the municipality, however, as KMT politicians took to doing last time in order to attack the DPP. Leaders of city and municipal governments have generally stated that quarantines will only be considered if there are upward of 1,000 cases. Taiwan has not required a lockdown to date, with the COVID-19 situation having remained stable in the past year.

Tweet from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the donation of medical equipment to India

In the meantime, with COVID-19 cases continuing to spiral out of control in India, the CECC has announced an entry ban on foreign nationals traveling from India. The Tsai administration has sent 150 oxygen concentrators and 1,000 oxygen cylinders to India to alleviate the country’s current emergency oxygen shortage, describing this as an initial shipment of aid. It remains to be seen what other aid may come from the Tsai administration, if it does. The Tsai administration may organize charter flights for Taiwanese nationals in India if necessary.

Vaccine rollout for Taiwan has been surprisingly slow, with Taiwan having received 199,200 doses of the AstraZeneca out of a total of 1.05 million doses allocated to Taiwan through the COVAX program for international vaccine distribution. Medical workers and other vulnerable groups were prioritized as eligible groups for receiving the vaccine, but the Tsai administration has also released 20,000 self-paid doses to date for members of the general public who need it due to travel plans or because of other circumstances.

The release was likely due to lack of interest from members of eligible groups that qualify to receive the vaccine, with the government seeking to use up the doses of the vaccine as quickly as possible because the doses of the vaccine will expire by the end of May. It is unknown whether this is due to distrust in the AstraZeneca vaccine, given concerns that it might cause blood clots, or due to lack of interest in vaccines because the general public currently does not feel a need for vaccines, with the COVID-19 situation generally under control in Taiwan. Though the Moderna vaccine is set to arrive in Taiwan this month, along with more doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, members of the general public may otherwise be waiting for the rollout of more easily available domestically-produced vaccines that are currently undergoing testing.

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