COVID-19 vs. Tet

The race to beat the outbreak by the holiday

Good morning! As I’e done during previous outbreaks when the news came fast and furious, here is a Monday morning update specifically on COVID-19. It was a big weekend, but I remain cautiously optimistic.

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On to the news.

The outbreak spreads, as does contact tracing

On Friday morning, the number of community transmission cases linked to clusters in Quang Ninh and Hai Duong stood at 100: as of Sunday night, that figure had grown to 238.

Cases have been detected in nine cities and provinces, including Ho Chi Minh City, while Gia Lai Province in the Central Highlands has reported five cases. Thus far everything remains connected to those two outbreak centers (and especially Hai Duong), and the vast majority of new cases are in northern regions.

While this is of course unfortunate for the hardest-hit provinces (in fact, workers at the factory at the center of the Hai Duong cluster protested their conditions live on Facebook), it’s a good sign for the country overall - I was expecting much higher case numbers to be announced over the weekend considering how much testing is going on.

Officials in Hanoi, for example, plan to test all residents who returned to the city from Hai Duong since January 14, and testing has also been extended to third-level contacts of known cases. Every medical worker in the country is also expected to be tested in the coming days.

Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, head of the national COVID-19 prevention task force, has pledged that the government will crush this outbreak in 10 days, with Tuoi Tre quoting him as saying: “It took use 23 days to detect the transmission in Da Nang [last July]. This time, it took us 10 days, and we are committed to containing it within another 10 days.”

Mind you, transmission was only detected because a woman flying from Vietnam tested positive upon arrival in Japan - it’s impossible to know when the problem in Hai Duong would have come to light if that hadn’t happened.

Ten days brings us right up the edge of the Tet holiday, which officially begins on February 10, but huge amounts of domestic travel will, in theory, begin this week and the coming weekend.

This has put anyone with Tet plans in a bind: a friend of mine in Saigon who is from Quang Ninh already knows she won’t be able to visit her family over the holiday, while some foreign friends have canceled trips. (I’m supposed to fly to Quy Nhon on Saturday and am in wait-and-see mode.)

In one of the first closures from a major tourist destination, Hoi An has closed its popular Old Town pedestrian zone until further notice, and officials in Hanoi have decided to close all schools starting today - a week earlier than planned - a move that impacts over 2 million students.

The capital has also ordered karaoke parlors, bars and nightclubs to close (it is almost comical how frequently karaoke places show up on contact tracing lists), and Saigon has stopped operations of buses to or from Quang Ninh and Hai Duong.

As far as I know, domestic flight operations haven’t been adjusted, though there’s plenty of chatter on social media from people saying that travel should be shut down before the Tet rush begins in earnest. There are also reports of huge numbers of travel cancellations.

In a very interesting move, the health ministry has approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine for use in Vietnam. We already knew that the company had pledged 30 million doses (for 15 million people) to the country, but those weren’t expected to begin arriving until late this year at the earliest - the Minister of Health is now saying doses will make there way here within this quarter.

This is a major change in the vaccine timeline, but it’s not clear who will be first in line once these doses get to Vietnam.

All things considered, it seems like the government and health workers are on the right track, though I’ve talked to people who think more drastic measures need to be taken. Life here in Saigon is quite normal, though a number of large events have been cancelled and the city government advised people to avoid large gatherings (a tough thing to do around Tet). Up in Hanoi, on the other hand, the popular weekend pedestrian zone around Hoan Kiem Lake was almost deserted yesterday.

Vietnam’s COVID-19 case total is now 1,816, and the death toll remains 35.

Back Friday with your regular programming.