Younten Tshedup 

The national Covid-19 task force is studying whether there is a need to increase the mandatory quarantine period for people travelling from higher to lower risk areas within the country.

The technical advisory group (TAG), in the light of the ongoing outbreak of Covid-19 in the southern bordering areas, has recommended increasing the quarantine period from seven to 10 or 14 days.

A member of TAG, Dr Sonam Wangchuk, said that with the spread of the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it was important that the protocols be intensified.

He said that the seven-day quarantine period fulfilled its purpose by acting as a second layer of surveillance for those travelling from high-risk areas to lower risk places in the past. “But we cannot compare things of the past and expect the same results this time,” he said, adding that the Delta variant of the virus is highly transmissible.

Recently, two individuals travelling from Phuentsholing to Thimphu tested positive for Covid-19 while inside the quarantine facility. The two, including several others were tested and escorted to Thimphu and other places to be placed in quarantine centres.

Unlike in the past where individuals were first quarantined for seven days in their respective origin of place (high-risk areas) before allowing them to travel, people are now escorted to various other places to be quarantined. This is because of the shortage of quarantine centres in places like Phuentsholing and Samtse.

The two individuals tested negative on the RT-PCR test before they were escorted to Thimphu from Phuentsholing. However, it was learnt that they later turned positive while in the quarantine in Thimphu.

Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that the reason behind them turning positive later could be because of being recently infected. “It is possible that the two people could have contracted the disease two to three days before and the first RT-PCR test did not detect them.”    

He explained that the incubation period — time between the person’s exposure to the virus and when the symptoms appear for SARS-CoV-2 virus — was usually between four to five days. “This is why our seven-day quarantine had worked well before. But now it’s a different variant of the virus infecting us and the transmission rate and exposure modes are also different.”

He said that the existing seven-day safety period was no more adequate, especially in the current outbreak situation. “We have recommended that if the quarantine period could be increased to at least 10 or 14 days, it would be more effective.”

Emphasising on the need to revise the quarantine period, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that although the seven-day quarantine period provided a certain level of safety, there was a small window whereby positive cases could be missed, especially in an outbreak scenario.

“Some discussions have happened but for now, we have not decided anything,” Lyonchhen said, adding that for now the quarantine period for those travelling from higher to lower risk areas was still seven days.

Lyonchhen said that unlike in the past, no emergency travel from high-risk areas would be entertained without fulfilling the seven-day quarantine protocol. “Even those who are referred on medical emergencies in ambulances are compulsorily managed in containment once they reach the destination.”

He added: “Emergencies, including death of family members, or if your relatives were in the ICU, nothing is considered this time without fulfilling the seven-day quarantine protocol.”

This, Lyonchhen said, was being done to protect the rest of the country from turning into an active transmission hotspot.

Observers say, without the seven-day quarantine protocol, the ongoing outbreak could have spread to the rest of the country months ago. “More than a month after the lockdown, Samtse and Phuentsholing are still reporting cases from the community on a daily basis,” said one. “If it wasn’t for the quarantine and other interventions, the virus would have spread across the country by now.”

Edited by Jigme Wangchuk