Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

It has been 116 days since Phuentsholing last detected a positive Covid-19 case from the community after the longest lockdown was lifted on August 10 this year.

This is equivalent to the number of days Phuentsholing and its residents were under lockdown, including partial lockdowns.

However, there is nothing to celebrate.

As of December 6, India detected a total of 23 Omicron variant cases. Nepal and Thailand also detected their first cases.

Omicron transmission in India is putting pressure on the country. The first town that will take a hit, given the porous border it shares with the Indian town of Jaigaon, is Phuentsholing.

To prepare and prevent local transmission, a mass public sensitisation programme will be held today in the town to sensitise the residents on Covid-19 safety measures, share issues and challenges faced during the pandemic, and exchange ideas for further intervention to maintain zero community cases.

Even before this, the Southern Covid-19 Task Force (SC19TF) contacted all government, corporate and private offices on the sensitisation. About 14 such offices concluded their sensitisation programme yesterday.

For the awareness building today, the SC19TF has made it compulsory for each household to have an individual attend the programme. There are over 30 different sites identified for the sensitization programme. There are several talking points that will be highlighted.


Are Phuentsholing residents still at risk for  Covid-19?

A task force member, Rixin Jamtsho, said all the southern dzongkhags are at high risk.

“New variant Omicron can reach Bhutan at any time,” he said. “And it is easy to become complacent.”

He said the other reasons why Phuentsholing is vulnerable are the illegal activities due to the porous borders.

“In the past few months, several incidents of protocol breaches have been reported. Vaccines may also become ineffective due to mutations.”

There are also several areas considered risky and to be avoided during the Covid-19 pandemic in Phuentsholing. The mini dry port (MDP), truck parking, and the road stretching from the main gate to Thuenlam gate are a few of them. Quarantine facilities and red buildings are also considered risky.

On the features of Omicron, Rixin Jamtsho said the variant has multiple mutations, up to 32 mutations, compared to only eight for the Delta variant.

“It is estimated that the new variant might be 500 percent more infectious than Delta,” he said, adding that more information and further study are still required.

Further, Omicron has shown to have an increased risk of reinfection, has a high potential to evade vaccine antibodies, and a higher likelihood of rapid spread. Omicron is also more likely to cause severe infections and reinfections.

Why is quarantine  important?

Although many have raised concerns about the current seven days’ quarantine while moving from high-risk areas to low-risk ones, SC19TF has pointed out the importance of continuing quarantine.

The incubation period for SARS-COV-2 to cause Covid-19 takes two to 14 days. About 15 to 20 percent of the patients show symptoms only after seven days.

As per the proportion of symptom onset data from possible exposure date for locally transmitted cases in Bhutan (data up to the second lockdown), 54 percent showed symptoms within three days and 85 percent showed symptoms within seven days.

About 95 percent showed symptoms within 14 days, while 99 percent showed symptoms within 21 days. This indicates quarantine is necessary.