by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Cheng-en Cheng/WikiCommons/CC

A CLUSTER INFECTION linked to Taoyuan International Airport has expanded to twelve people, as of last night. 

The Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which coordinates Taiwan’s response to COVID-19 announced that seven cleaners and one quarantine taxi driver were found to have become infected with COVID-19 on Thursday. Some of the cases were confirmed to have the Omicron variant. 

All of these cases were breakthrough cases, with Taoyuan International Airport workers vaccinated in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among employees at Taiwan’s major international airport. Six of the cases overall live in Taoyuan, while one of the cases lives in New Taipei and another in Keelung. Travel history of the confirmed cases includes visits to convenience stores, supermarkets, and restaurants. 

Testing information released by the CECC

Of concern is that one of the infected individuals also worked weekends at a stall in Zhongzhen Market in Zhongli selling jewelry, as well as that one of the infected individuals had attended a new year’s party at the Golden Voice Singers Club event with 800 attendees. The latter individual did not sing and reportedly only played mahjong in a separate area, but testing of all attendees was ordered. 577 airport quarantine taxi cab drivers were tested, with all but the infected driver testing negative. 765 airport cleaning staff tested negative, though 116 have been quarantined. None of the family members of those infected tested positive and their symptoms were mild. 

Those that had overlapping travel history with the infected cases were also called on to be tested. Three of the cleaners worked in the same area and the quarantine taxi driver was potentially thought to have become infected through using the restroom that they cleaned. However, otherwise, the source of infection is unknown. 

Nevertheless, at 11:40 PM, Thursday night, the CECC announced that the cluster had expanded to four other individuals. This consisted of a security guard at the Taoyuan International Airport as well as two attendees of the Golden Voice Singers Club event and one of their family members. 

According to Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung, the current outlook suggests that there have been multiple waves of infections at Taoyuan International Airport and that the Omicron variant has entered into the community. That being said, Chen stressed that the situation was still under control, per contact tracing measures. 

Taiwan currently has 80.11% first dose vaccination and 69.72% second dose vaccination, with less than one percent having yet received booster shots. In the wake of the new cases, the CECC has encouraged those who have not yet been vaccinated to do so, stressing the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant. Vaccination has slowed among the elderly, with some still remaining hesitant about vaccines. 

COVID-related measures have been strengthened for Taoyuan and efforts are also being made to step up measures for Taoyuan International Airport as a whole. To this extent, the Taoyuan Airport cluster takes place following five clusters at quarantine hotels in Taiwan since December that are thought to possibly be the result of the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, though there are not yet signs that Omicron has spread undetected among the community. 

Information released by the CECC on cases from Thursday

In particular, Taiwan is expected to see increased travel for the Lunar New Year Holiday later this month, something that will strain measures against COVID-19 not only in Taoyuan International Airport, but in quarantine hotels across Taiwan. There have been some concerns regarding the reduced quarantine schedule that will be rolled out, allowing individuals to quarantine at home for seven days after the same period of time in a quarantine hotel. 

However, given that many have already made their travel arrangements, the CECC likely hopes to avoid making a last-minute shift in currently permissible quarantine regimens. This would upset not only the travel and hotel industry, but outrage many families waiting to be reunited with their loved ones, and the CECC would be criticized for a policy reversal. 

At the same time, questions have been flagged regarding whether Taiwan will maintain current restrictions on entry indefinitely, or whether with its current rate of vaccination, Taiwan needs to accommodate COVID-19 rather than continue to adhere to policy aimed at zero-COVID. The Lunar New Year holiday will flag this issue, due to the increased likelihood of COVID-19 entering Taiwan during this period. Regardless, the CECC is likely cautious about the possibility of another outbreak that would lead to Taiwan needing to return to near-lockdown conditions, following the outbreak that began last year in May. 

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