Finding patient zero near impossible: Health Minister

Shaba driver denies breaching protocols 

Phub Dem and Younten Tshedup 

While the health ministry is readying a report on the source of the current Covid-19 outbreak in the country, Sowai Lyonpo (health minister) Dechen Wangmo said that it was epidemiologically not possible to narrow down the source to a single individual — often known as patient zero.

A patient zero refers to the person identified as the first carrier of a communicable disease in an outbreak of related cases.

However, following a report from one of the local newspapers, many were quick to conclude that the current outbreak of the virus in Thimphu and Paro revolved around a school bus driver in Paro.

Sharing his side of the story, the Shaba school bus driver said that he had not violated any of the Covid-19 protocols as many thought. To begin with, he said that there were no protocols for the frontliners, including testing and isolating themselves before leaving for home.

He said that after picking the passengers from the airport and dropping them off to the quarantine centres, the drivers went directly home, without staying in the quarantine or testing.

Beginning March last year, the driver has been involved in ferrying passengers from the airport to quarantine facilities and carrying frontliners to quarantine centres. His last day on duty was on December 18.

One of the health officials in Paro said that the dzongkhag taskforce discontinued the quarantine provision for frontliner since September last year given the huge financial implication and decreased repatriation flights. The incident commander, Paro dzongdag was not clear about these changes.  

While the driver claimed that he was kept in quarantine or restricted positioning only from August 1 to October 8, health official in Paro said that the drivers were kept in quarantine starting March to September.

The official said that all drivers including city bus drivers from Thimphu deployed to move people at the airport were never placed in quarantine. Three buses of Lamgong, Shaba and Khangkhu schools were identified for transporting passengers at the airport. City buses from Thimphu were also involved as and when required. The Shaba driver said that he was shocked when he learned that he was the source of the infection. “I am not the only driver who tested positive for the virus. A city bus driver from Thimphu engaged at the airport has also tested positive.”

It was learned that the bus drivers were provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) and the buses were disinfected before leaving for the school.

However, the driver said that it would have been safer if they were kept in quarantine and tested.

The health surveillance team claimed that mass testing was conducted at the airport once every two weeks. The driver however, said that there was no test specified for the drivers. “We did not know when the tests were scheduled. The mass testing was only for officials working within the airport.”

He said that he could have contracted the virus from his wife and children who had travelled to Thimphu between December 11 and 12. His wife and children tested positive for the virus on December 22, while he tested positive on December 24.

He added that the school authority had also asked the dzongkhag administration if it was safe for schools when drivers were directly sent home after picking up the passenger from the airport. “But officials were of the view that there were no risks.  If I’ve violated the protocols, I am accountable. But I have a record for every movement in my logbook as a proof.”

Shaba school principal, Karma Tenzin, said that the teachers and staff were disturbed by the news of their driver being the source of the outbreak. “No staff of the school have tested positive so far and none of us have gone out to play archery matches,” he said adding that the interaction between the driver and students and staff was minimal.

Unfair to blame bus driver: health minister 

Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that it was unfair to label the driver as the individual responsible for spreading the disease. She said branding one individual as the source of infection was a scientifically baseless accusation. Like all frontliners, she said that the driver was equally contributing in the fight against the pandemic.

The minister explained that Covid-19 was an imported disease and the only source of such disease was via the point of entries (POE) — southern borders or international airport. This also included the quarantine centres in Paro.

Based on the epidemiological assessment of the current outbreak, Lyonpo said that the southern POEs were all clean except for Paro, where the international airport is located.

“However, it is a near impossible task for us to establish an individual as the source of the infection,” she said. “No country in the world can identify a single individual as the source of infection.”

Lyonpo said that the ministry was still assessing the situation and investigating for potential lapses at the POE. “The assessment is done not to finger point on individuals or organisations but to identify our own lapses and bridge the gaps so as to prevent similar issues in the future.”

She said that the country had no experience in dealing with a pandemic before and it was only human to overlook some of the measures.

“We are all learning and no person would intentionally breach the protocol and spread the disease,” she said. “I would also like to request people not to jump to conclusions before understanding the situation clearly.”

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