All primary contacts and suspects test negative

Younten Tshedup

What could calm thousands of Bhutanese closely following the first positive case of COVID-19 in the country, all the 125 tests conducted so far has tested negative.

The samples of two individual from Trongsa and Trashigang suspected of being infected with COVID-19 has also tested negative, according to the health ministry.

The 76-year-old tourist is in stable condition at the national referral hospital.

All the 75 primary contacts, those who had interacted with the American patient, tested negative in their first test. 45 suspects who displayed some symptoms, but had no contact with the index patient (American) have also tested negative.

All the suspects are currently under quarantine and are being constantly monitored.

However, there were cases, globally, where suspects who tested negative in the initial examinations were diagnosed with the disease in subsequent tests.

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering, at a press conference yesterday, said there is no specific number of tests that needs to be performed on the suspects. He said that the reason why primary contacts are kept under quarantine was to observe if they developed any symptoms within the incubation period, which is usually for about two weeks.

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that if a suspect after the initial test becomes symptomatic at any given point, they are retested. “If incase the suspects tests positive, they would be put under isolation and his or her primary contacts would be quarantined accordingly,” she said. “If they do not show any symptoms, they would be tested on the seventh day and towards the end of their quarantine period.”

Lyonpo added that for now there are adequate test kits for those who need to be further tested. An additional 1,500 test kits would be arriving in the country today.    

A middle-path approach 

In the wake of people calling for strict restriction, Lyonchhen explained why the government did not impose travel restrictions immediately after the global outbreak was declared.

“Since January, we were under pressure to stop tourism. Politically, I would have gained a lot of mileage by doing so,” he said. “However, the country’s economy could have shut down if we had taken the drastic step then.”

Lyonchhen said that with over 100,000 people involved in the service industry including more than 3,000 tour agents and over 4,500 tour guides, the government decided to take a middle path approach to handle the situation.

Now that a temporary restriction has been imposed on travels, the Prime Minister said that people would be affected especially in the service sector. “Many might default on their loans and some might lose jobs. But in such a situation, there are no absolute measures that could solve all these issues.”

However, Lyonchhen said that he has tasked the financial institutions, Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) and the finance ministry to study the situation and advise the government on the way forward.

On the ongoing petition demanding the Prime Minister to step down, Lyonchhen said that this is the least topic that should bother him and the government now.

“Had I stopped the tourist entry then, those affected people in the sector would have asked me to resign in January,” he said. “They have asked me to resign on moral grounds. If it’s on moral grounds, I should not resign.”

Lyonchhen said that his conscience is clean. “Morally, I should do what I can, even if it has to be by putting my life on the line. I think this is what I’ve been doing so far.”

The health minister said that the preparedness plan, which is currently in its third stage, was systematically designed. “We knew exactly what we were doing. When we were at the green level, we started preparing for the yellow level. Now that we are in orange, we are preparing for the red level.”

She said that the health ministry started their preparedness plan against COVID-19 on January 11, 10 days after the global epidemic was declared.

By January 20 all trainings and travels for the health workers were cancelled and works to equip staffs against the outbreak were rolled out.  As of last week, the ministry has identified 40 million (M) as saving from its trainings and workshops. The money is appropriated for COVID-19 related activities.

Lyonchhen said that the government has requested other ministries and agencies to follow suit.