Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

While an investigation is underway on how the 37-year-old expatriate woman in Phuentsholing contracted Covid-19, the Southern Covid-19 Task Force (SC19TF) is certain that she didn’t breach Covid-19 protocols.

Considering the woman’s travel history, contact tracing, and the negative test results of her primary contacts, it is suspected that a customer who visited her workstation at Lucky Restaurant and Bar transmitted the virus.

A member of the SC19TF, Rixin Jamtsho said this is scientifically highly possible.

“None of the customers tested positive. Even her primary contacts tested negative,” he said.

According to him a customer with a “high immunity” could have visited the restaurant and passed on the virus.

It could also be the result of the third booster dose, because almost 90 percent of the entire Phuentsholing population has had the third booster vaccination.

“The person who may have passed the virus to her may have recovered,” Rixin Jamtsho said, explaining this was evident from all the customers who were contact-traced and tested negative.

“It is highly possible when the herd immunity is there. This is what the experts tell us.”

SC19TF chairman Sonam Wangyel said the expatriate woman was certain about her movement history and that she has not breached any protocol.

“A customer must have transmitted it without realising,” he said. “We are still investigating.”

Meanwhile, the woman tested positive from the samples collected on January 6 during the routine enhanced surveillance. Phuentsholing was put under three days of lockdown on January 7, which was relaxed on January 10, after no further community cases were reported from samples collected, including the customers who visited Lucky Restaurant.

However, the town was quickly gripped by the fear of instant lockdown on January 10, the same day relaxation commenced. Rumours spread that a de-suup tested positive from the samples collected on January 9 and there would be another lockdown.

According to the SC19TF, about 2,000 samples were collected on January 9 and a de-suup had tested positive. The de-suup was deployed for duty at the main entry gate in the containment centre, along with 15 other frontliners.  The de-suup was responsible for briefing the foreign workers and Bhutanese on Covid-19 safety precautions and quarantine protocols upon completion of the entry formalities by the police.

Since the de-suup worked in a strict containment mode and all his frontliner colleagues tested negative, the risk of community transmission was declared “very low.” SC19TF clarified to the public there was no lockdown.

“The surveillance was timely,” SC19TF chairman Sonam Wangyel said, underscoring that had the surveillance been delayed even for a day, the consequences would have been bad.

Meanwhile, an inspection report by the Regional Inspection Team (RIT) from December 28 to December 30, 2021 on Covid-19 health safety protocol adherence and compliance by drivers and travellers via the India highway to and from Phuentsholing and Gelephu observed that travellers and drivers had to come out of their vehicles for verification of documents at the SSB checkpoint.

Indian SSB officials were seen without facemasks. The locals across the border were also seen without facemasks, walking close by the Bhutanese waiting for document verification, the report said.

Further, it stated: “Some Bhutanese drivers and passengers were seen without proper face masks. There was an exchange of documents between travellers and SSB without proper disinfection.”

SC19TF chairman said anything across the border was beyond immediate control.

“However, we took the matter seriously and discussed it,” he said. “We initiated the discussion with the SSB. The SSB was kind enough to look into the matter and everything was resolved. Nobody needs to come out now.”

At the Gelephu main gate, the RIT report said, “The hard copy of the registration list was being exchanged between SSB and de-suups without proper disinfection.

“The same paper was handed over to the RBP personnel at the main gate.”

SC19TF chairman said the matter has already been discussed with the task force in Gelephu.

“We are also visiting Gelephu to discuss further,” he said.


What next?

SC19TF confirmed that the recent positive case from the community was not the new variant, Omicron. However, given the increasing number of Covid-19 cases in India, aggressive sensitisation programmes have started in Phuentsholing.

A total of 135 taxi drivers were sensitised yesterday. The Phuentsholing business community and truck drivers will be sensitised for the second time today.

“Whether we want a lockdown or not is in our own hands,” SC19TF chairman said.

“People should use (properly) the recommended three-ply masks. It is the only thing that will protect us from the virus.”

Rixin Jamtsho said that if 90 percent of the total population used the right face masks in the right way, respiratory diseases of any kind should be put under control within a few months.

SC19TF also advises people to use the Druk Trace app, to limit unnecessary travel, and to comply with handwashing protocols at all times.