TAIPEI - Taiwan, largely spared from the global coronavirus pandemic since it began last year, is grappling with a small but still uncontained outbreak that appeared last month.
Since April 20, Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center has confirmed infections of 10 pilots working for the Taiwan-based international carrier China Airlines and eight relatives of pilots. At the Novotel Taipei Taoyuan International Airport hotel, which is next to the island’s chief international airport, four employees, three of their family members and a hotel contractor have been diagnosed since April 29.
On Tuesday, the command center reported two new COVID-19 cases, both airline employees.
Authorities expect it will take another week or two to determine how wide the outbreak has spread. Health Minister Chen Shih-chung told a news conference Sunday the cluster does not qualify yet as a “community outbreak” but cautioned people to follow guidance on avoiding infections.
“Until May 17 we will be in a period of high-level alert, so please everyone cooperate,” Chen told a Tuesday news conference.
Command center officials have disclosed the movements of people who were recently infected so anyone who might have crossed paths can be tested for the virus. Potential infection spots include buses, convenience stores and restaurants in northern Taiwan including the capital Taipei, Centers for Disease Control deputy director Luo Yi-jun said.
The command center says hundreds of contacts and potential contacts of the 24 patients confirmed through Monday had already been tested for infection.
“Two days before these people showed symptoms, they were infectious, so this outbreak poses a very big challenge to the whole community,” said Chiu Cheng-hsun, vice superintendent at Linkou Chang Gung Hospital’s pediatric respiratory department. “Right now, there’s an extremely high risk, an extremely high chance, of a community [caseload].”
Any more COVID-19 cases pegged to the airline, or the hotel should show up within the month, Chiu said.
A wider outbreak would be Taiwan’s first runaway caseload since COVID-19 began gripping the world in early 2020.
Most people in Taiwan, population 24 million, are keeping their hands clean, wearing masks and disinfecting their surroundings, health professionals in Taiwan say. But they show few signs of changing their lifestyles otherwise.
“I think the general Taiwanese public at this moment probably doesn’t believe Taiwan overall is so dangerous or so dire, and they’re not on such high alert, because Taiwan was a good student over the past last year, like it performed well,” said Wu Chia-yi, associate professor in the National Taiwan University College of Medicine’s nursing faculty.
But she said some people feel “depressed” or “anxious,” especially if in a hospital and exposed to patients’ blood.
People around Taiwan should step up disease prevention habits, such as mask wearing and hand washing, that might have slacked before the recent outbreak, Chiu said.
The command center said last week it is exploring whether pilots of foreign-registered airlines set off the Novotel cluster.
“Novotel teams are fully cooperating and following protocols and measurements as advised by the local authorities,” Novotel said in a statement. “Meanwhile, our focus is to closely monitor the progress of our staff members and guests who are currently under quarantine. The safety and wellbeing of our staff and guests are our absolute priority.”
China Airlines has not answered requests for comment.
Taiwan’s success in warding off COVID-19 has allowed people to keep working and going out as usual. The government controlled the virus spread in early 2020 through inspections of inbound aircraft, strict quarantine rules and rigorous contact tracing. Taiwan has logged a cumulative 1,153 cases with 12 deaths.
The most recent localized outbreak occurred in December when an infected Eva Airways pilot sparked cluster of four people. Those cases prompted a wave of event cancellations and new restrictions on inbound pilots. Almost all other cases since the start of the pandemic are Taiwan residents returning from overseas.
On Tuesday, the command center said it would step up disease controls by restricting bedside visits to hospital patients. Hospitals are tightening their own precautions, particularly in emergency rooms.