Authorities battle Corona resurgence | Daily News


Authorities battle Corona resurgence

Health workers treating suspected Coronavirus cases.
Health workers treating suspected Coronavirus cases.

The Government has been preoccupied for weeks with its attempts to bring in the 20th Amendment to the Constitution but this week, it was faced with a new challenge- a surge in the number of cases of Coronavirus infections which threatened an upsurge in the Covid-19 pandemic. Matters related to the 20th Amendment have been concluded, with hearings in the Supreme Court coming to an end. The Court’s verdict will be conveyed to the President and the Speaker and will be known shortly. Now, it is the Coronavirus upsurge that is causing most concern to the Government.

The first signs of a resurgence in the pandemic appeared late last week when a 39-year-old female garment factory worker from Divulapitiya tested positive for Covid-19 at the Gampaha Hospital. She was admitted to the Gampaha Hospital for fever and was tested for Covid-19 at the time of discharge.

She tested positive for Covid-19. Almost immediately, contact tracing began and her contacts were placed in quarantine. These included more than a dozen staff members of the Gampaha hospital as well workers at the Brandix garment factory where she was employed.

In response, the Government also imposed a Police curfew in the Gampaha and Minuwangoda police areas. The Police said this was a precautionary measure as it was unclear how the infected female acquired the infection. The patient had been transferred to the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH).

Apparel manufacturer Brandix issued a statement clarifying the measures it was taking. “All necessary measures to ensure complete containment of the virus have been implemented with immediate effect, including the rigorous disinfection of the affected work site,” the company said.

Several other measures followed swiftly: the second term school vacation for all schools in the country was brought forward, the University of Kelaniya was closed and the Mahara and Negombo prisons were closed for visitors. These were aimed at minimising the spread of the infection.

In addition, Chief of Defence Staff and Army Commander Shavendra Silva- who also heads the special Presidential Task Force against the Coronavirus - ordered all Tri-Forces and Civil Defence personnel living in Minuwangoda and Divulapitiya not to report for duties until further notice.

He also requested all workers of Brandix who have not reported for testing to do so immediately. “Workers, who have failed to be present before health officials or law enforcement authorities to undergo medical procedures are asked to reach them immediately," the Army Commander said. The question baffling authorities was how the patient- with no known contacts with an affected person- came to be infected. Tests showed that her 16-year old daughter was also positive for the virus. Her father, husband and other children were quarantined at a centre in Habaraduwa.

Testing for the infection was ramped up in a bid to contain its spread. As of Tuesday night, the total number of infections was at 832 after hundreds of persons from the apparel factory tested positive, authorities said. Most of the infected persons in the ‘Minuwangoda cluster’ were factory employees.

A challenge confronting the authorities was tracing the residential details of the employees. “The records we have obtained mostly show permanent addresses of employees. However, during investigations, we found that most employees do not reside at these locations,” an official said.

“Some have been long term employees of the company, but are residing in different addresses to those available on record. Public Health Inspectors are therefore struggling to find the exact whereabouts of a number of people,” a Public Health Inspectors Union of Sri Lanka (PHIUSL) spokesman said.

“If people are reluctant to share details publicly, we encourage them to share details in confidence. They can contact their respective Public Health Inspectors and provide details.We will ensure that their privacy is respected and will not divulge sensitive details to public,” the PHIUSL noted. As there were indications that the infection could be spreading- because employees of the factory came from many regions and may have visited their hometowns - more measures to curb the pandemic went in to force. For example, prisons throughout the country were closed for visitors.

As news of the upsurge in the pandemic reached the public, there was also a rush to stock up on supplies and fuel. However, the Government indicated that there was no need for ‘panic buying’ and that there was no indication for a complete, nationwide lockdown at this stage of the pandemic.

“We urge people not to engage in panic buying as it would further intensify the risk of infection,” Chief Epidemiologist Sudath Samaraweera said. “We have witnessed similar incidents of this nature before and the distribution of essential goods is not at risk,” Dr. Samaraweera explained.

Dr. Samaraweera however described the current upsurge as challenging. “It is the most difficult one to be tackled in the country since the point of origin of its first infection is not yet established and the number of persons who was in contact with the patient who tested positive is high,” he said.

However, Dr. Samaraweera said there was no community transmission. “Community transmission is a situation in which patients are reported across the country with the origin of infection being unable to be traced.

There is no such a situation in the country at the moment,” he said.

Previously, Sri Lanka experienced two large clusters of infections- at the Welisara Navy camp and at the Kandakadu Rehabilitation Centre. Both these clusters were brought under control within a few weeks after extensive measures were introduced and community transmission did not occur.

There was also speculation that islandwide curfews would be reintroduced to curb the pandemic. This was fuelled by social media as well, prompting the President’s Media Division (PMD) to request the public not to fall prey to false news circulating on social media sites regarding such a measure.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa convened a meeting of the Covid-19 Task Force to review the outbreak originating in Minuwangoda. At the meeting, the Government discussed the requirement to gazette the existing rules and regulations aimed at preventing COVID-19 as a means of giving it legal effect.

The President instructed relevant parties to take immediate measures to contain the spread of the infection following the identification of close associates of those infected by sending them to the closest hotels to undergo quarantine. He also advised to increase the number of PCR tests carried out.

“Especially, organisations where a large number of people are employed have been asked to conduct tests. However, it does appear that factories with large workforces have neglected this responsibility,” the President noted. The President also noted the need to conduct random inspections at workplaces.

Despite these assurances there was continued speculation that a nationwide lockdown was imminent, eliciting a response from Covid-19 Task Force Chief Shavendra Silva.

“As of today, there are no such plans. But we are closely monitoring the situation and we are ready to face any situation,” he said.

Nevertheless, the authorities were taking no chances. The Ministry of Health advised on Tuesday that all public gathering should be cancelled. “Public gatherings such as exhibitions, large conferences, carnivals, musical shows, processions should not be conducted until further notice,” the Ministry said.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa also advised caution. In a social media message, he urged Sri Lankans not to panic, exercise caution, act responsibly and follow guidelines. “The Government, healthcare authorities, Police and Tri-Forces are working to ensure the outbreak is contained,” he said.

Support also came from the major opposition party, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) which said it was ready to co-operate with the government in its effort to contain the growing cluster of infections, despite its ongoing tussle with the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) over the 20th Amendment.

“We are ready to re-think the protest campaign planned against the 20th Amendment. We are ready to provide whatever assistance the Government needs at this moment, in the way we did earlier when the disease first broke out,” SJB stalwart and Parliamentarian Kabir Hashim told a media briefing.

As of Tuesday night, the statistics emerging from the recent wave of infection was concerning. A total of 729 positive cases were reported on Tuesday itself recording the highest number of cases in a single day. The total number of confirmed cases in Sri Lanka surged to 4,252 with 973 active cases.During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka was hailed as a model where a robust primary health care system with limited resources managed to contain the virus at a very manageable level when countries with more advanced health systems recorded hundreds of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths.

Since then, a stringent system of checks and strictly enforced health measures, coupled with the closing of international borders has helped the country maintain a relatively safe environment over the past several months which saw the gradual relaxation of restrictions and the resumption of normality. The cluster at the garment factory threatens that prospect with the potential of a larger scale lockdown looming. However, the authorities have been quick to step in, bringing in stricter health measures and widespread testing once again. The coming weeks will tell whether those efforts have paid off.