by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Ko Wen-je/Facebook
THE CENTRAL EPIDEMIC Command Center announced 295 new cases of COVID-19 at its daily press briefing today. 286 cases were of domestic transmission, with 9 imported cases.
The highest number of cases were in New Taipei, with 157 new cases, of which 40 were in Zhonghe. Taipei had 87 new cases, with 40 in Wanhua, which is at the center of the outbreak. However, the number of cases in New Taipei is on the rise, in areas with strong transportation links to Wanhua such as Zhonghe and Banqiao, and there are concerns that cases could spread elsewhere from New Taipei.
Taoyuan reported 17 cases, Yilan had eight cases, Changhua had six cases, Keelung had five cases. Kaohsiung and Taichung both had two cases, and Hsinchu and Yunlin both had one case each. As there are fears that COVID-19 could spread to central and southern Taiwan, the number of cases in Kaohsiung and Taichung, Taiwan’s second-largest and third-largest cities, is something worth keeping an eye on.
Infographic released by the CECC on the cases today. Photo credit: Ministry of Health and Welfare/Facebook
Minor shifts do not indicate longer-term trends, however. Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung stated that trends will be more visible ten to fourteen days after the start of the current outbreak, though it does not appear that there has been any dramatic shift in the situation. Some experts have stated that they believe the peak of COVID-19 infections will come next week on Wednesday or Thursday. CECC members have themselves stated that cases could reach 3,000 in a month. When asked about this during the press conference, Chen emphasized remaining attentive to the present, rather than speculating about when the peak of COVID-19 would take place, or when things would return to normal. Testing results also do not reflect the full picture of the current situation, given a possible backlog of testing results.
84 cases were linked to establishments in Wanhua, with 60 linked to tea houses. Four new cases were linked to a family of grape sellers that sell grapes in Wanhua but live in Changhua. 63 cases were of unclear origin, with 28 under investigation. Individuals displayed symptoms between May 1st and May 17th and were aged under five to around 90.
However, the CECC also reported a new death from COVID-19. The death was a 70-year-old woman living in Wanhua who was found dead at her home on the 17th. She developed symptoms on the 15th but did not initially wish to be hospitalized, and was placed on a watchlist on the 16th. The woman is Taiwan’s fifteen death from COVID-19 in the course of the pandemic. The woman was only found to be COVID-positive after death.
Positivity rates at testing sites in Taipei have declined, from a peak of around 11% to 7.9%, 5.1%, and down to 4.6% yesterday, with around 1,000 to 1,200 tests taking place per day. The positivity rates have also decreased from 5.5% to 2.9% in New Taipei. Testing capacity is lower in New Taipei, but capacity has increased from 200 tests per day to 600 tests per day. An uptick in reported cases in New Taipei may be due to increased testing capacity.
Apart from testing sites at hospitals, there are neighborhood testing sites set up in several cities. This includes five neighborhood testing sites in Wanhua in Taipei, four in New Taipei, and four planned to be set up in Taoyuan, with two testing sites starting operation tomorrow. Changhua uses several local hospitals and a mobile testing site. Testing sites are set up based on where the highest amount of cases have been found.
Taipei, New Taipei, and Changhua are using rapid testing, which is useful for areas with high positivity rates, but would result in false positives in areas with lower positivity rates—in Yilan, for example, which has a 1% positivity rate, out of every ten individuals with positive results, there would be seven false positives. It has long been a worry of the CECC that too many false positives would overwhelm an already stressed hospital system. There may be plans down the line to roll out testing kits available for purchase, though this will require some means of ensuring that information about testing results is centralized.
With concerns about individuals in Wanhua traveling elsewhere, including possible asymptomatic cases, an SMS message was sent out today at 3 PM to remind people tested in Wanhua to visit local health services if they feel sick. It is hoped that individuals will not travel if they need medical treatment, increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19, but that they will seek treatment locally.
Minister Chen took the opportunity to remind members of the public to stay at home if there is no pressing need to go out, as well as to warn journalists conducting interviews at testing sites of the possibility of becoming infected due to this. Chen’s comments directed at journalists came in the wake of an ETToday journalist becoming infected with COVID-19 due to conducting interviews at tea houses in Wanhua. Chen emphasized that vital information would not be gained from man on the street interviews at testing sites, but journalists could become infected with COVID-19 due to proximity with infected individuals.
As such, Chen reminded journalists to disinfect their microphones and disinfect their hands after handling microphones, otherwise they were at risk of passing COVID-19 onto later interviewees. Likewise, as journalists come in contact with a large number of people, they are at special risk of passing COVID-19 onto other people.
Taiwan as a whole is on level three alert status, which is near-lockdown. Schools have been closed nationally, with a shift to online teaching. Indoor gatherings of more than five and outdoor gatherings of more than ten are forbidden with fines of between 60,000 and 300,000 NT, though this does not apply to families living together, or businesses. While work has not been stopped for all of Taiwan, some businesses have canceled work on their own. Restaurants unable to maintain social distancing indoors have been asked to close, with take-out or deliveries encouraged.
Taiwan will shift to level four alert status, meaning a full lockdown, if there are fourteen consecutive days of more than 100 new cases and half the cases cannot be contact traced and are of unclear origin. Today is the sixth day of over 100 new cases, but the number of cases that are of unclear origin has remained at around 20% of new cases per day.
This has led to cancellations and closures nationally, including of many traditional markets and night markets. The Yilan International Children’s Folklore and Folkgame Festival has been canceled, though ten million NT was already spent from its budget. The remainder of the festival’s 130 million NT will be allocated to COVID-19 prevention measures.
The Executive Yuan has rolled out a new QR code registration system for contact tracing, rolled out under the auspices of Digital Minister Audrey Tang in collaboration with HTC. The new system does not collect personal data and works through text messages sent to cell phones, taking less than ten seconds to complete. The CECC explained the new system at its press conference today. Receiving the texts allows telecom carriers to have records of where customers were present, with coordination likely aided by the close relation between Taiwan’s telecom carriers and the state.
Explainer video about the new QR system. Film credit: Executive Yuan/Facebook
However, there have been complaints about delays in rolling out the system, with the Keelung city government criticized for still using paper-based registration despite the new system. Keelung mayor Lin Yu-chang of the DPP stated that the Keelung city government only learned about the system from watching the news, suggesting lack of coordination between the central and local governments.
With a shortage of quararantine facilities in Taipei, efforts are being made to shift patients between Taipei and New Taipei to ensure adequate distribution of beds.
Given a sharp drop in ridership and a need to alternate work shifts to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among key personnel, the Taiwan Railways Administration has announced reduced trains. This includes seven trains canceled on weekdays and eight trains canceled on weekends on western Taiwan, 16 trains canceled on weekdays and 28 trains canceled on weekdays in eastern Taiwan, and two trains canceled on weekdays and four trains canceled on weekends in southern Taiwan. The reduced number of trains will last until June 8th.
With concerns of a cluster infection at National Taiwan University Hospital (NTUH), hospital workers have been tested for COVID-19 since yesterday. Testing is expected to finish today, with over 10,000 workers having undergone testing. While ten of the original 36 workers tested were positive for COVID-19, further testing resulted in an additional six or seven cases, suggesting that the hospital has not yet seen a cluster. The source of infection is believed to be from the outside, rather than due to spread within the hospital, as a result of NTUH workers that traveled to Wanhua.
Similarly, three workers and two patients were tested positive at the Taipei City Hospital Heping Branch, in the latest new cases at the hospital. The Heping Hospital has stopped accepting new patients, while hospital management has emphasized that there have been no additional transmission chains of COVID-19 found. The Heping Hospital previously had nine cases of COVID-19 infection that were due to COVID-19 spreading within the hospital, but these cases are thought to be due to workers that visited Wanhua and are not thought to be related.
The Far Eastern Memorial Hospital reported a new COVID-19 case today, making the total number of cases connected to the hospital fourteen. 177 contacts have been listed. At the Taipei Hemodialysis Center, one staff member has been hospitalized and an additional four individuals have tested positive. At the Tri-Service General Hospital Songshan Branch, four hospital workers were hospitalized due to contact with a nurse that contracted COVID-19. Cases at the Taipei Veterans General Hospital are not thought to be linked to transmission in the hospital,
Other places where new infections have been confirmed include National Taiwan University, with one student in the Department of Social Sciences having tested positive for COVID-19, the National Audit Office, Fubon Financial Holding, and the Entie Commercial Bank. Though there were previously concerns about a kindergartener in Kinmen being COVID-positive, raising fears of COVID-19 spreading to the outlying island, such fears later turned out to be unfounded. A driver for China Airlines whose route passed through Wanhua was confirmed COVID-positive, with much media speculation as to his possible contacts.
Facebook post by Sean Lien
Some individuals have been fined for violating restrictions on gatherings. Well-known Kaohsiung-based streamer “Almond Brother” was recently fined for streaming a meal with six other individuals. Individuals dancing outdoors in Kaohsiung in violation of restrictions on outdoor gatherings were also fined.
400,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in Taiwan yesterday, having been sent to Taiwan through the COVAX vaccine-sharing agreement. The vaccines are currently undergoing testing for quality control, as plans are drawn up for their distribution. Local governments have stated that they will set up distribution mechanisms for vaccines.
Contestation over international vaccine diplomacy continues, with Honduras warning that it may switch recognition to China because of Taiwan’s inability to provide it with vaccines. This has led to the US stating that it intends to send vaccines to Latin America as part of upcoming plans to globally distribute 80 million vaccines, though Taiwan is also in need of vaccines. The KMT and Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je have lashed out at the US, claiming that the US has not provided Taiwan with even one dose of vaccines to date.
Similarly, KMT politicians such as Central Standing Committee member Sean Lien have been dismissive of the CECC’s current measures, claiming that lockdowns are useless without vaccines. One can expect that the KMT will try to leverage on Taiwan’s current need for vaccines as much as possible, claiming that as the China-friendly party in Taiwanese politics, it could help obtain Chinese vaccines or at least prevent Chinese interference in efforts by Taiwan to obtain western-produced vaccines.