Bhutan has gone 14 days with zero cases and four weeks with no community cases.
There are multiple factors that are contributing to no new positive cases from the community. The main two factors are vaccination and strict monitoring.
Dr Sonam Wangchuk, a member of the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NI-TAG) said there are a lot of factors that have led to no new positive cases from the community in the high-risk areas. One important factor is vaccination. All the eligible population have been vaccinated and in the high-risk areas all children above 12 years to 17 years have also been vaccinated.
Another factor is that the Southern parts of Bhutan are monitoring all those containment areas whether it’s MDP, factories, and quarantine facilities strictly as per the protocol. Also, illegal activities along the border areas are vigorously monitored by deploying extra frontliners.
Dr Sonam said a lot of advocacy and sensitization has been done especially in the Southern districts. All the frontliners including truck drivers and taxi drivers are advocated and regularly sensitized on the dos and don’ts on COVID-19 protocols. “May be that is the reason that people are now understanding the risks and following all the risk mitigations,” he said.
Another reason could be, the situation in the neighboring states are fairly stable as compared to a few months ago. Anything that is happening in neighboring states, will affect Bhutan too, Dr Sonam added.
Dr Sonam Wangchuk said every outbreak has taught them what needs to be fixed.
In the first outbreak, the government came up with a dedicated quarantine containment, started testing, came up with high-risk demarcation and had many more things, and similarly, in the second outbreak in Paro, despite all the SOPS and protocols, somehow there was an outbreak because the drivers were not kept in quarantine which was worked on.
He said in the third outbreak, while people were following all the protocols, there was a little gap in regular monitoring and the virus was more transmissible. So the safety measure and protocols didn’t work due to the high transmissibility of the virus and another reason was that while deploying frontliners for monitoring, there was no proper sensitization on dos and don’ts while they were deployed in the quarantine facilities or in the containment areas. A lot of breaching of protocols happened during the third outbreak.
“That gave us a lot of experience, so every outbreak was a lesson to learn and put interventions in between,” said Dr Sonam.
Dr Sonam also shared that the population in the South has reduced, and a lot of people from Phuentsholing have travelled to low-risk areas. So less people means they are more easy to monitor and it contributes to the safety measures.
Currently, the NI-TAG team and COVID-19 task force members are strongly enforcing advocacy through social media or other platforms. Although people are vaccinated, people are still seen being complacent, especially in low-risk areas.
On testing, Dr Sonam said all the containment facilities, drivers, frontliners, community who are at risk are tested every two weeks as per the enhanced surveillance protocol including referral patients and travelers from high-risk to low-risk areas.
The NI-TAG team has submitted the phase of relaxation of post COVID-19, and according to the situation, the National COVID-19 Task Force will decide. However, to put in a total relaxation is difficult for now as the virus keeps on changing.
If there is approval of vaccination of 6 years to 11 years’ children, Bhutan can attain almost 90 percent of vaccine coverage but it does not mean that Bhutan is safe because the virus may change.
He said no matter whether there is a month or two months without any positive cases from the community, Bhutan will always have to act according to the global situation and based on that, the restrictions will be lifted.
Dr Sonam said if any person knowingly or unknowingly breached the protocol, there is a consequence but still if there is an outbreak through illegal activities or import-export, there may be sporadic cases but not a massive outbreak like in the past. However, low-risk areas are always at a risk of community outbreak and high-risk areas are safe for now unless high and low risk protocol is not breached.
So far there are seven active positive cases in the country. Now positive cases are kept in the identified quarantine facilities and only severe COVID-19 patients are admitted in the isolation ward. Earlier a team consisting of doctors and nurses were deployed for the COVID-19 patients. Dr Sonam said only 5 percent of COVID-19 patients required medical attention otherwise 95 percent never required any attention.