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New COVID-19 Cluster Triggers 15 Percent Surge in Cases, 23 Phnom Penh Locations Closed

The Cambodian Health Ministry medical team provide COVID-19 testing at a blocked neighborhood in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Feb. 21, 2021. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

Cambodia reported 76 new cases of COVID-19 in Phnom Penh over the weekend and Monday, a sharp spike in the country’s case count, with the government saying it is unsure of the exact origin of these infections.

The Health Ministry reported 31 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, a cluster that it refers to as the “February 20 event.” It had reported 45 related cases on Saturday and Sunday, taking the total cases linked to this cluster to 76.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said health officials had not identified the source of the infections, making it Cambodia’s second instance of community transmission. Most of the people testing positive were Chinese nationals, Hun Sen added, and that it was linked to a nightclub in Phnom Penh’s Olympic commune.

According to the Ministry of Health statements, a Chinese woman tested positive when she got a COVID-19 test to fly back home. Contact tracing revealed at least 20 other cases. Four other Chinese nationals, who wanted COVID-19 certificates for travel, also tested positive on Saturday.

Additionally, four women bribed their way out of quarantine at Phnom Penh’s Sokha Hotel and two tested positive for the disease, according to Hun Sen.

As of Monday, the Ministry of Health said the country’s novel coronavirus tally stood at 568 cases with zero deaths. The 82 new cases since Saturday – 76 of which were from the community transmission cluster – resulted in a 15 percent increase in cases in the last three days.

“The search finds that this community transmission is more serious and complicated than the November 28 event,” read a Health Ministry statement from Monday.

The November 28 event was the first case of community transmission, which first emerged in the family of an Interior Ministry official, but its origins were not ascertained. Another cluster from November 3 was linked to a state visit by a Hungarian minister, where COVID-19 safety requirements were flouted.

In response to the current outbreak, the government temporarily closed down KTVs and nightclubs, seven public and private schools, and condominiums and apartment blocks where these positive cases were detected.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, in an audio message released Monday, has ordered the temporary closing of both public and private schools in Phnom Penh and Kandal province for at least two weeks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Police stand guard as they lock down a bridge to Koh Pich (Diamond Island), as motorists wait behind a barrier, in Phnom Penh on February 20, 2021, after authorities found 32 local cases of Covid-19 coronavirus. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy/AFP)
Police stand guard as they lock down a bridge to Koh Pich (Diamond Island), as motorists wait behind a barrier, in Phnom Penh on February 20, 2021, after authorities found 32 local cases of Covid-19 coronavirus. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy/AFP)

The geographic spread of locations spanned from the Phnom Penh International Airport to Koh Pich, and from Daun Penh district in Phnom Penh to southern Takhmau in Kandal. People in close contact with anyone who tested positive or in the vicinity of the closed down locations were encouraged to get tested by the Health Ministry

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Sunday ordered military medical workers to standby if the case count balloons further. “The situation [of transmission] is not ordinary. We have to be ready a step ahead for all situations,” he said in an audio clip released on social media.

The Cambodia China Times, an online news outlet, reported on Sunday that the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh had confirmed that some Chinese nationals had fled their quarantine hotel and some were in hiding after they had tested positive for COVID-19.

The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to emailed queries on Monday. Health Ministry secretary of state Or Vandine could not be reached for comment.

Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Center for Development and Peace, said it was concerning that people were able to break quarantine measures easily.

“When we don’t quarantine properly, it will lead to high risk. When [people in quarantine] are out, they communicate with others,” he said.

The new community transmission incident comes as Cambodia started vaccinating people against COVID-19 with Chinese–made Sinopharm vaccine on February 10, with several dignitaries and government officials lining up to get the two-shot vaccine.