Bhutan’s COVID-19 journey in 2021

Bhutan’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic is seen as a pandemic success story around the world. Such a feat was possible under the exemplary leadership of His Majesty The King, who toiled through sleepless days and nights, since the start of the pandemic – walking the length and breadth of the country to safeguard the people and the nation against an invisible enemy.

The whole nation galvanized into action, and the dedicated service and significant role played by the Ministry of Health (MoH) during the pandemic was recognized by His Majesty The King. MoH was awarded with the prestigious Druk Thuksey Medal by His Majesty during the 113th National Day on 17 December 2020. His Majesty also conveyed warm sentiments for the people who have shown unity, cooperation, sacrifice and volunteerism.

As of 31st December 2021 Bhutan recorded about 2,660 total cases of which seven are active with total of 3 deaths. Over 1.2 million tests were conducted. The capital from 20th December 2020 went into another lockdown, which lasted for 42 days. It also triggered the second nationwide lockdown on 23 December 2020.

A 72-hour lockdown in Thimphu was imposed in June and Phuentsholing experienced the longest lockdown, from 16 April 2021 to 10 August 2021.

Phuentsholing detected new positive cases of COVID-19 almost everyday during the lockdown. One of the reasons for the rise was because of the porous border, a lot of illegal activities and import/export of commodities happening on a daily basis leaving Phuentsholing vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19.

People in Phuentsholing endured 100 plus days of lockdown and ensured that the chain of COVID-19 transmission was broken. The COVID-19 protocols are followed diligently by them. Since August 2021, Phuentsholing has not detected any cases from the local community.

Learning from the past mistakes, the government enhanced the surveillance system, strict COVID-19 protocols were on place, the quarantine period was increased, they strengthened the security in the quarantine centers, vigorous advocacy to the public and frontliners were instructed on the dos and don’ts.

When it comes to the vaccines, Bhutan received Covishield vaccine from India which allowed the nationwide vaccination campaign to begin in March, 2021. 

Bhutan received 500,000 Moderna mRNA vaccines from United States of America for the second dose and so a second nationwide COVID-19 vaccine commenced in July, 2021.

Another consignment of vaccines is 250,000 AstraZeneca doses received from Denmark. Countries like Croatia and Bulgaria and others came forward with the 100,000 plus doses. China also donated 50,000 Sinopharm vaccines.

About 50,000 children aged between 12 to 17 in the high-risk areas received Moderna as a first dose in July and upon receiving 198,900 doses of Pfizer on September 7, 2021 which is fully funded by the Royal Government of Bhutan, the health ministry rolled out the second dose for more than 59,000 eligible children in the 12 to 17 years category and first dose for around 20,000 remaining children.

Overall, the country has vaccinated 77 percent of the population and almost 93 percent of the eligible adults above 12 years. Further, 93.6 percent of adults (18 years and above) are fully vaccinated and 93.4 percent of children between 12 to 17 years are also fully vaccinated.

Booster doses for the priority groups and 18 and above in the high-risk areas have been initiated by the ministry of health. The government is exploring the pediatric dose for 5 to 11 children in the country.

Bhutan recorded the first official death due to COVID-19 on January 7, 2021, where a 34-year-old man died due to hepato-renal failure, the second death was an 82-year-old lady from Gomtu and the third death occurred when 67-year-old man from Darjeeling died at the RIGGS isolation ward in Phuentsholing in August 2021.  The deceased had underlying medical conditions including hypertension and diabetes and was also treated for lung tuberculosis in the past.

Bhutan also saw three deaths of comorbid patients who had cleared COVID-19. The deceased were referral patients who had been sent to Kolkata for treatment, but they had tested positive when they came back. The first death of a comorbid patient was that of a 30-year-old lady with lung cancer on December 24, 2020, the second death occurred on December 25, 2020 when a 52-year-old with an auto-immune disease. She died while on ventilation after she had tested negative for COVID-19 on December 19, 2020 and the third death was an 84-year-old man with a heart condition who also died after clearing COVID-19.

Around July, 2021, Bhutan’s main concern was the Delta Variant which is known to be very infectious and pose high risk to children unlike the Wuhan Strain that the country first had. After sequencing around 30 COVID-19 samples in Bangkok, Bhutan was found to have the Delta Variant.

The Delta Variant is still a concern, but now the government is more worried over the new variant called Omicron that has been spreading like a wildfire throughout the globe. The government has further enhanced the security in the Southern borders and Paro International Airport to stop importation of the Omicron variant.

The latest variant of concern, Omicron, contains 32 mutations on the protein spikes which are far more than those observed in other variants. However, the Delta variant, as of now, continues to be the predominant circulating variant, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This, however, is quickly changing.

For now the Omicron is not in the community, however, the health ministry appeals to the public to practice non-pharmaceuticals measures such as wearing face masks at all times, washing hands frequently and avoiding mass gathering.

The Royal Center for Disease Control (RCDC) is collecting RT-PCR samples from positive patients to test whether the variant is the Delta, Omicron or something else.

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