by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Ko Wen-je/Facebook
THE CENTRAL EPIDEMIC Command Center (CECC) announced 275 new cases of COVID-19 today. 267 cases were domestic transmission, with 8 imported cases.
Taipei and New Taipei continue to be the areas with the most cases. New Taipei had 129 cases, with 26 cases in Zhonghe. Taipei had 70 cases, with 31 cases in Wanhua. There were 28 cases in Changhua, 16 cases in Taoyuan. eight cases in Kaohsiung, five cases in Taichung, four cases in Keelung, three cases in Yilan, and 2 cases each in Tainan and Hsinchu. It is increasingly feared the COVID-19 may be spreading to southern Taiwan.
80 cases are linked with establishments in Wanhua, 73 cases are linked with tea houses in Wanhua where sex work may take place, and 28 cases are linked with a family of grape sellers. 49 cases are of unclear origin. The new cases are individuals that displayed symptoms between April 30 and May 17, aged under five to around 80.
Infographic released by the CECC. Photo credit: Ministry of Health and Welfare/Facebook
The infection rate at the origin of the outbreak in Wanhua seems to be decreasing. 1,213 tests were carried out at the four testing sites set up in Wanhua yesterday, with 62 positive results. This is an positivity rate of 5.1%. The day prior, the positivity rate was 7.9%. This is a decline from 11% on May 14th. Efforts to assist affected populations are on the rise, with attempts to provide masks to Wanhua’s sizable homeless population, as Wanhua is home to the majority of the homeless population in Taipei. Yet it is clear that COVID-19 is increasingly spreading outside of Taipei.
As such, the CECC announced that all areas nationwide would shift to level three status from today onward. While Taipei and New Taipei were already under level three status, areas outside of Taipei and New Taipei remained on level two. The level three status will last until May 28th, with the possibility of new adjustments before May 28th.
Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung stated local governments will now be required to hold press conferences in the morning, reporting on the COVID-19 situation in their respective localities and providing updates on new measures rolled out. After the local government’s press conferences, the CECC will hold a press conference making nationwide announcements.
Local governments, particularly those controlled by pan-Blue mayors, have pushed against the CECC’s measures in past weeks, sometimes calling for escalation in alert status or suggesting that they would escalate alert status on their own. Sometimes local governments would hold press conferences after the CECC’s 2 PM daily press conference, likely hoping to benefit from
knowing what the CECC had announced before making announcements. Pan-blue mayors see themselves in competition with the central government and may be hoping to upstage the CECC. Hence Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je and other mayors claiming that they were shifting to “near-level three” or “quasi-level three” conditions at a time in which the CECC remained at level two.
This is likely the reason why Chen announced that the CECC’s press conference will take place after the morning press conferences by local governments, in order to maintain medical authority, and to be able to react to unexpected announcements by local governments. Indeed, Chen stated today that with Taiwan as a whole at level three, there is no “near-level four” status. Level four alert status means a full lockdown, while level three is a partial lockdown, with businesses still allowed to remain open.
Nevertheless, with Taipei and New Taipei first announcing level three status, and then all of Taiwan shifting to level three status four days later, this has led to questions about whether Taiwan as a whole will shift to level four status in the near future. If so, it is questioned whether specific regions of Taiwan will shift to level four before other areas, or whether level four will apply to Taiwan as a whole.
Infographic released by the Ministry of Education about online teaching. Photo credit: Ministry of Education/Facebook
Chen stated that he hoped to avoid this and that he did not think this would happen. However, to this extent, Chen reminded that the criteria for shifting to level four status was not only that Taiwan would have to see fourteen consecutive days with more than 100 new cases of COVID-19, but that more than 50% of these cases are of unclear origin and cannot be contact traced. This has not been the case so far, even if Taiwan has seen five consecutive days with more than 100 cases per day. Nevertheless, Chen stated that if this takes place, there may be no choice but to shift to level four.
Local governments have also been asked to integrate medical information with the central government, to come up with a list of hotspots where COVID-19 infection is high, and set up testing sites there. Individuals with symptoms will be prioritized at testing sites. Even if it is possible for people to be asymptomatic carriers, this is because of limited testing capacity. Lanes will be set up for individuals that display symptoms and those that do not have symptoms at testing sites.
Local governments have also been asked to expand quarantine facilities, seeing as there are 17,780 quarantine rooms, of which 10,501 are occupied—meaning that 59% are occupied but that there are still 7,000 quarantine rooms available. As for centralized quarantine facilities, there are 4,500 rooms, of which 2,500 are used. The public has been asked to avoid unnecessary travel during this time.
New measures have been rolled out to avoid cluster infections at hospitals, with concerns of inspection spreading among people waiting for the results of testing at emergency rooms. There will be ventilated areas set up in hospital for people waiting testing results. Members of the public have also been called on to avoid traveling distances to preferred hospitals and to seek treatment at the closest hospital—there is a culture of traveling to preferred hospitals for medical treatment in Taiwan. Taiwan is hoping to increase the number of oxygen machines it has available.
There are fears of a cluster infection at the National Taiwan University Hospital (NTUH) after a worker at the hospital reported a fever then proved positive for COVID-19. Of 36 people tested, 10 were positive for COVID-19. The hospital is currently closed to new patients, while over 6,000 hospital staff are tested over the next 48 hours. It is believed that the source of infection is from outside, due to hospital staff that traveled to Wanhua, rather than due to spread within the hospital. Hospital staff that became infected are not medical personnel.
Other hospitals where there are concerns of cluster infection, due to staff becoming infected with COVID-19, also include the Kaohsiung Renhui Women and Children’s Hospital, the Far Eastern Memorial Hospital in New Taipei, and the Taipei Hemodialysis Center in Taipei.
Similarly, there continue to be concerns about the possibility of COVID-19 spreading among Chunghwa Post workers. After a confirmed case with a large number of contacts within the company, two workers have tested positive for COVID-19. A journalist for ETToday covering the situation in Wanhua has also tested positive, though the company has not confirmed her hospitalization yet. Following a worker at the School Affairs Office of the National Ilan University was confirmed positive for COVID-19, this led to concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19 on campus.
In unusual case, a Banqiao man went for COVID-19 testing on May 13th, but was afraid of public scrutiny about his travel history if he turned out to be positive and so left false personal information. After he turned out to be positive, this resulted in police having difficulty tracking him down, initially pursuing leads in Xinzhuang, before eventually finding him in Banqiao.
Management of key infrastructure such as the Taiwan Railways or the Taipower Company, Taiwan’s state-run power utility, have been asked to divide up work shifts to prevent the spread of infection amomg workers. Concerns still remain about tight power supply and the possibility of further outages after the two that already took place this week, due to issues with the Hsinta Power Plant in Kaohsiung and historically high power usage.
400,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are set to arrive in Taiwan today at 4 PM, obtained through the COVAX vaccine-sharing agreement. This is the third shipment of vaccines that Taiwan has received, in addition to an initial shipment of 199,200 doses and a second shipment of 117,000 doses. This will likely be used for vulnerable groups, with Taiwan still not having enough vaccines for general use.
The CECC has stated that vaccines will be reserved for medical personnel. The CECC will spend several days planning distribution and vaccines will be tested for quality control for one week before distribution begins. This current shipment of vaccines expires on August 31st, though there should not be issues with using them up before then. 245,008 vaccinations have taken place in Taiwan to date. 21,102 vaccinations took place yesterday, with 20,483 vaccinations paid for by the government, and 709 self-paid vaccines. Self-paid vaccinations have been suspended, though these were carrying out earlier appointments.
39 rapid testing stations have been set up in Taipei, New Taipei, and Taoyuan. Taoyuan is slated to set up 30 new testing stations, with the first starting operation tomorrow, each capable of performing 200 to 300 tests per day. Testing stations have also been set up in other parts of Taiwan, with expansion of the groups allowed to undergo testing. The CECC has stressed that testing needs to have central oversight to maintain an overview of the current situation in Taiwan, even if channels may be set up for medical personnel to conduct tests, and that discussions are underway about how to best expand testing.
With all schools cancelled but places of employment not mandated to close, this has resulted in difficulties for educators that have had to shift to online teaching and parents having to deal with children at home while juggling work obligations at the same time. Many online teaching platforms have been unable to cope with the influx of new users, resulting in frequent classes. Though ridership of public transport has seen dramatic declines and some businesses have voluntarily closed, it is unclear how many businesses remain open. Employers have been criticized for inflexibility regarding remote work arrangements, something that may return to working culture in Taiwan, but there has not been any broader push in Taiwanese society to allow for remote work.
Conflicts between Taipei city and the central government continues regarding hospital bed allocation, with Taipei urging more beds to be opened up and more medical staff to be sent to Taipei from the central government. The central government is instead calling for reserving some beds for non-COVID-related illnesses or sudden upticks in COVID cases. As such, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je has stated that only serious COVID-19 cases should be hospitalized. The CECC has stated that, with 10,300 beds total in Taipei and New Taipei, which are not fully being used, this is due to issues with allocation, not lack of capacity.
Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (left) and Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je (right). Photo credit: Ko Wen-je/Facebook
A multilingual LINE chatbot has been set up to provide migrant workers with information on the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, it is a question what the rates of LINE usage among migrant workers are; it may not be the preferred social media website for migrant worker groups, with differences between each nation and their social media habits. It is a question if the LINE chatbot was set up under the assumption that migrant workers have similar social media habits to Taiwanese.
China has sought to use the current wave of COVID-19 cases as an opportunity to attack the Tsai administration, claiming that the outbreak shows the mismanagement of the Tsai administration. As the CCP’s political proxy in Taiwan, the KMT has called for the Tsai administration to accept Chinese vaccines. The Ministry of Health and Welfare recently forbade Kinmen, which is six kilometers off the coast of China, from purchasing Chinese vaccines. The Mainland Affairs Council has hit back, stating that Taiwan would have more easily been able to purchase vaccines, if not for Chinese interference.
One expects cross-strait contestation about vaccines to continue, particularly if Taiwan receives vaccines from the US, following pledges by US President Biden to distribute 20 million vaccines globally, adding to a previous pledge to distribute 80 million vaccines. Likewise, it is unclear when the Moderna vaccine, originally scheduled to arrive this month, will be delivered to Taiwan.