Country widely considered to have had one of best pandemic responses now racing to contain outbreakSoldiers spray disinfectant in Wanhua district, Taipei. Photograph: Ann Wang/Reuters
Taiwan reported 206 new local cases of Covid-19 on Sunday, breaking the previous day’s record high of 180 as authorities brought in the strictest measures yet in a bid to contain the virus.
The outbreak, which began about three weeks ago among employees of the national airline and a connected quarantine hotel, has now produced about 85% of Taiwan’s total number of locally transmitted cases since the pandemic began.
The sudden rise in cases in a country widely considered to have had one of the world’s leading pandemic responses prompted partial lockdown measures in two cities including the capital, Taipei, and sent worried residents indoors, clearing usually busy shopping districts and temples.
At a press briefing on Sunday, the central epidemic command centre (CECC) announced 207 new cases, one of which was an imported case. The patients were predominately older people but ranged in age from five to 80. There were 89 new cases in Taipei City, of which 58 were in the district of Wanhua, where a cluster of at least 100 cases so far has centred on hosted bars and teahouses connected to the sex work industry. Another 97 cases were in neighbouring New Taipei City. Dozens of cases have reportedly not yet been traced to a source.
A day after ordering Taipei and New Taipei to move to level 3 of a four-tier alert system, the health minister, Chen Shih-chung, announced further measures including remote learning for some school years, and guidelines for hospitals to prioritise symptomatic Covid cases, saying dedicated beds were beginning to fill. He urged people to increase hygiene measures and avoid unnecessary travel and interactions outside home. “Personal responsibility is very important,” he said.
The level 3 alert covers about 6.5 million of Taiwan’s 24 million people and limits gatherings and mandates public mask-wearing and the closure of some businesses and public venues. It allows eateries to stay open if they can ensure social distancing, but initial confusion about the rules left many businesses unsure if they had to close. People panic-shopped in droves on Saturday afternoon, crowding supermarkets.
Despite Taiwan’s compliance and caution in relation to the pandemic, Chen suggested he had not implemented more stringent restrictions because residents might resist.
Health experts said the rise in case numbers was probably partly a result of mass testing drives over the weekend. But the sharp jump from 29 new cases on Friday to triple figures over the weekend has prompted alarm among a population that has seen the virus wreak havoc overseas while their own lives have remained largely normal.
Taipei’s metro system reported a 60% drop in passengers on Saturday, with 1 million fewer rides than the previous week. The capital was devoid of crowds and traffic, and riverside eateries and pedestrian shopping districts were mostly empty.
On Sunday in Wanhua, the centre of Taipei’s major cluster, shops were closed and trucks carrying decontamination teams drove the streets. A lone woman prayed at the usually crowded Longshan temple, while an adjacent park hosted just a fraction of the elderly residents who usually gather to chat, play board games or shelter from the sun under the bougainvillaea.
The outbreak has also prompted a surge in vaccinations. On Saturday 32,000 people were give a dose, the highest daily number so far. With no community presence of the virus in Taiwan for so long, few people eligible for the several hundred thousand vaccines obtained had sought one out. In light of the outbreak, self-pay vaccines for the general public – launched to make use of the doses before they expired – were suspended. President Tsai Ing-wen announced that a domestically developed vaccine would be available by July, and orders of overseas vaccines are expected in coming months.
The outbreak began in late April among airline staff from the domestic carrier China Airlines and the Novotel hotel at Taoyuan airport where they stayed. Infections then spread to families and households. Observers have noted the short quarantine period for airline staff, which was relaxed from five days to three in mid-April, amid allegations that infected individuals went out socialising.
Sunday’s cases bring Taiwan’s total tally of Covid-19 cases to 1,682, of which 1,132 were imported.