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As Cluster Spreads, WHO Fears “Large Scale” Outbreak Will Overwhelm Hospitals

A medic (2nd L) wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) talks to a woman waiting to take a Covid-19 coronavirus test at the National Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh on February 23, 2021. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP)

A new COVID-19 cluster, which was detected over the weekend, has spread beyond Phnom Penh, with the World Health Organization warning that a “larger scale” outbreak could overrun Cambodia’s health care infrastructure.

The outbreak, dubbed “February 20 Community Event”, was first detected on Saturday in a cluster of Chinese nationals who had visited a Phnom Penh nightclub and was linked to travelers who bribed security guards at Sokha Hotel to evade the quarantine.

On Wednesday morning, the Health Ministry reported new 40 cases, bringing the current outbreak tally to 139. Among the 40 new cases, 36 are from Phnom Penh, two are from Kandal, and two are from Preah Sihanouk province – the first cases to be reported outside the capital and Kandal.

The Health Ministry initially categorized the two infections in Preah Sihanouk province as imported cases, but ministry spokesperson Or Vandine confirmed later that the two infected foreign nationals were linked to the February 20 community transmission.

Preah Sihanouk provincial spokesperson Kheang Phearom said the authorities were placing lockdown measures at three hotels and casino facilities, and a staff dormitory owned by Jin Bei Group. Similar measures were being taken at Huang Guan Jiajue Hotel, which was close to the provincial office.

“It is a situation under control because we have collected and managed comprehensive information about the contacts and we acted quickly,” Kheang Phearom said.

“At the exposed locations, we close off the facilities, keep people who had direct and indirect contacts in one place, leaving no chance of them moving around freely.”

Two people – a Chinese and a Vietnamese national -- tested positive in Kandal province’s Koh Thom district, according to Wednesday’s statistics.

Kuoy Bunthoeun, chief of Kandal’s Department of Health, said the two individuals had been hospitalized and a contact tracing team was working in Koh Thom district to search for any other contacts.

In Prey Veng’s Kamchay Mear district, local media reported that at least 41 people were tested and placed under quarantine after they attended a wedding party last week where one of the attendees, who was from Phnom Penh, had tested positive for the virus.

Or Vandine could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but on Tuesday she said health officials had detected at least three cases of the UK variant of COVID-19, which is highly contagious.

“We had been suspecting that this would be the case because the current situation is different from the November 3 and the November 28 outbreak events,” Or Vandine said during a Tuesday press conference. “The situation now is that it is spreading faster.”

Schools in Phnom Penh and Kandal were closed for two weeks to contain the virus, according to the Education Ministry. The Culture Ministry also ordered a two-week closure of museums, theatres and cinemas in the capital, Kandal, and Preah Sihanouk.

Li Ailan, who heads the World Health Organization’s Cambodia office, said the organization was “seriously concerned” about the new cluster, which had the potential to spread rapidly.

“I want to be very clear here [that] we are facing the risks of large scale outbreak,” Li said at a press conference at the Health Ministry.

Li warned that Cambodian healthcare facilities and hospitals could be “overwhelmed” if the “worst-case scenario” was to be realized.

“Our goal is to act quickly to suppress the transmission,” she said. “Otherwise, the virus is running very fast and we have to be ahead of curve.”

The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh also issued a notice to its citizens in Cambodia “to strictly observe epidemic control rules as some Chinese arrivals have left the quarantine hotel or escaped treatment centers after testing positive”, according to the Chinese state-owned Global Times.