The message was straight and it was stark from the Prime Minister in a press conference with the media on Monday. Most Bhutanese will get infected with the Omicron virus as relaxations are relaxed, but the PM also called on people not to panic as preparations have been made.
“Please listen carefully. For how long will you avoid Omicron in terms of days, months and years and for how long will you stay avoiding the virus. Are you planning to hide under a basket in your house or do you plan to go for a three year retreat?” said Lyonchhen Dasho Dr Lotay Tshering.
“It is not that we want you all to be infected and instead we hope that there is no infection, but there is not much hope that one can avoid the virus unless you want to go for a three-year retreat which is when the pandemic will go away,” added the PM.
He said that Omicron is milder, there is immune protection from the acquired immunity via vaccines, there is natural immunity for those who get infected, and those who have got the vaccine and get the infection get a hybrid immunity which is even stronger.
“Also, later when a new variant comes the vaccine immunity may not be as useful as somebody who got and recovered from Omicron. We are also worried about this,” stressed the PM.
“We have concluded that there is no way not to get infected with Omicron unless one stays like statue in a Lhakhang.”
He said Bhutan has around 700,000 people and the infected are around 18,000 in numbers (22,722 by Sunday).
He said people right now think that too many people are being infected as earlier the numbers were like 5 to 6 cases a day with the total being 1,000 or 2,000, but now with the current figures people think it is too much.
“We have around 725,000 people in the country and around 700,000 are still not infected. Be it slow or fast this 700,000 will be infected,” said the PM.
At this point if you think it is a good idea to go out and get Omicron then you have another thing coming.
The PM said, “However, if this 700,000 gets infected in 7 days or 10 days then in all 20 Dzongkhags patients will not fit in hospitals, oxygen will not be enough, medical staff will not be enough and in that case five to six people from every Dzongkhag will start dying.”
To prevent this, the PM said the government is doing the phase two relaxations in phases.
“From here on please do not be worried that the numbers are going up but pay attention instead of the hospitalization figures, if there are enough beds and how severe the patients are.”
Lyonchhen said there are 12 patients on Oxygen support who are more severe but they feel that they will do better in a few days (2 in the form of a 1 month 22 days old baby boy and a 62-year-old breast cancer patient later died on Thursday). There are around 40 to 50 patients in the COVID hospital in Thimphu but they are not hospitalized but kept as an isolation facility since there is space.
“We have had around 12,000 to 13,000 cases just from Omicron and we have 12 patients in the hospital but if 700,000 are infected quickly then imagine the numbers in the hospitals,” said the PM.
“We made around 750 additional beds for COVID and this is why we are opening gradually. “
He said if there are too many patients in the hospital, then lockdown will be imposed as the aim of the lockdown is to reduce too many cases or break the circuit of infection.
The PM explained they will not be doing lockdowns with community cases now because Omicron is milder, there is lesser symptoms for the vaccinated with some not getting symptoms and others getting a sore throat and fever for a couple of days or more.
“We cannot have zero infection nor do we need to do it, but under any circumstances we cannot have too many patients in the hospital. We have only 1,200 additional beds nationwide in all BHUs and hospitals and another 750 beds were created for COVID. If this gets filled up then we will have to do lockdowns,” said the PM.
He said the public should know that there is no way to avoid the virus, but at a time when the cases go up rapidly there is a lot of benefit in staying away from crowds.
The PM said that the earlier strategy was to prevent any transmission so we would have lockdown even when there were one or two cases.
“We now have herd immunity as the majority are vaccinated. We have around 90 percent with the third dose which is among the top three in the world. Omicron is milder and along with the vaccinated population elimination is not possible nor is it required.”
Lyonchhen said they worried there will be more cases in phase two but the biggest worry is too many patients coming to the hospitals and not fitting there. “If the hospitalization rate goes up and it becomes over crowded then we are in trouble.”
The PM said the ideal scenario is like in Phuentsholing where cases go but the patients coming to hospitals should not go up. He said if this go like that then things are under control.