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Stop the blame game: Appeals for calm after first community transmission

Khann Chanvirak / Khmer Times Share:
A police officer stands guard at the sealed-off Aeon 1 Mall in Phnom Penh to prevent the public from entering. KT/Siv Channa

The Health Ministry yesterday appealed to the public not to blame anyone for the country’s first-ever community transmission of COVID-19, affecting up to eight at press time and which occurred in the capital Saturday and Sunday.

The call by ministry spokeswoman Or Vandine comes after a Cambodian woman had reportedly flouted quarantine, transmitted the virus to her family and visited multiple places, sparking a massive contract tracing exercise in which more than 3,000 people have been tested.

It was reported that “the wife of the General Department of Prisons director-general had just returned from the United States, and she wandered around without following quarantine measures in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s guidelines”.

“I plead with all of you, please do not think of blaming any people,” Vandine said.

“The most important thing right now, is for everyone to take strong measures to protect themselves to prevent transmission in the community.”

She added that in other countries with more resources than Cambodia, COVID-19 is still uncontrollable, with millions sick and thousands dead.

“Our country is small. We have few resources. We have been trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19 for almost one year without any community transmission. Only now [yesterday], is the first case of transmission in the community,” she said. “Our whole team, including ministry leaders have not slept, day and night, for the health of all. Hopefully, in the spirit of solidarity, together we will fight COVID-19. We will work together to overcome this obstacle.”

The wife of Lieutenant General Chhem Savuth, the Ministry of Interior’s director-general of the General Department of Prisons, who tested positive for COVID-19, entered Aeon 1 Mall in Tonle Bassac commune, Chamkar Mon district, Phnom Penh at 5.30pm on November 21, and walked around for an hour and a half.

When she arrived at Aeon 1, she went up to the first floor and ate Japanese food. After eating for almost an hour, she went out to buy clothes and toys for her grandchildren and then went to the bathroom before going home.

The mall has now been closed and authorities are trying to trace those who may have come into contact with her.

Vandine said people who entered Aeon 1 Mall that morning or before November 21 are not at risk.

A statement from the Health Ministry yesterday said: “A 56-year-old Cambodian woman, who lives both in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, felt unwell [had symptoms of the flu for three days], and tested positive for COVID-19 virus on Saturday.”

“Her husband, 56, the director-general of prisons in the Ministry of Interior, along with four other family members [36-year-old woman, 12-year-old son, 36-year-old man and 30-year-old man] who live in the same house, tested positive for COVID-19,” it said.

All of them are currently being treated at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital,” it added.

Government officials, including Interior Minister Sar Kheng who were in contact with Lt Gen Savuth are now in quarantine.

The Ministry of Health said yesterday it has not yet identified the source of the COVID-19 infection and has not yet been able to ascertain who among those who could have interacted with the director-general’s wife have come to test for the virus.

Vandine said that the ministry has also decided to establish an additional COVID-19 testing place at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital for teachers, students and their guardians of American Intercon School (AIS) where the director-general’s son is studying.

“Due to the large number of people and government officials involved in the event, the Ministry of Health decided to set up another test facility at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital for teachers, students and guardians of AIS,” she said.

The Ministry of Health yesterday morning set up two COVID-19 testing sites, one at Aeon 1 for the general public and one at the Ministry of Interior for civil servants.

Phnom Penh Hotel has been temporarily closed to the public after Lieutenant General Chhem Savuth visited it. KT/Siv Channa

Meanwhile, Minister of Education Hang Chuon Naron yesterday announced the suspension of the AIS, Chak Angre branch and next door Aii Language Center, for two weeks.

“The suspension is due to the COVID-19 case involving the family of Lieutenant General Chhem Savuth, the director-general of prisons, who tested positive for COVID-19,” he said.

“AIS Chak Angre Branch School was found to be involved in the first community COVID-19 infection event, after the son of the director-general of the prison was also found to be positive for COVID-19,” he added.

According to a report by the Ministry of Education, up to 11 teachers and students came into direct contact with him.

The ministry is allowing the school to continue the process of teaching and learning electronically.

Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng yesterday said that Prime Minister Hun Sen has agreed with the decison to close Phnom Penh Hotel initially for two days because Lt Gen Savuth went to exercise and swim there on November 23 afternoon.

“The temporary closure is to allow doctors to search for those involved, both directly and indirectly, as well as to prevent any possible problems with COVID-19,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kheng, who said he is in self-quarantine, yesterday called on officials in contact with Lt Gen Savuth and his family to go for tests at the Ministry of Interior.

In an audio message sent to top officials of the Ministry of Interior yesterday, Kheng stated: “All our officials involved in working with Chhem Savuth, please go to the ministry (Meeting Hall S) to have samples taken.”

He also advised Lt Gen Savuth to call on those who came into direct contact with him to test and quarantine.

On November 24, Kheng chaired an inter-ministerial meeting at the Ministry of Interior which Lt Gen Savuth also attended. In addition, leaders of relevant ministries and heads of other institutions also attended the meeting.

In related news, Mr Hun Sen on Saturday night sent an urgent special message after the discovery of the first community transmission in Cambodia.

He advised those in contact to urgently quarantine. Among them are Kheng,  Minister of Justice Keut Rith, and many other relevant officials.

“I hope the people understand the situation and I will follow closely the progress of all the cases that the Ministry of Health and relevant departments report to me,” Mr Hun Sen said.

He asked people not to panic but to pay more attention to prevention through wearing masks, hand washing, and observing hygiene as instructed by the Ministry of Health. If they suspect they are infected, people should seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Yesterday, a team of doctors were deployed at Aeon 1 Mall, Kheng’s residence and the prisons in Prey Sar, Phnom Penh and in Siem Reap.

The authorities are launching a widespread contact tracing mission to track down all those who could have come into contact with the infected victims. These efforts could cover several provinces and a gated community in Phnom Penh.

Other provinces include Siem Reap, Mondulkiri and Banteay Meanchey for now.

Youk Sambath, Ministry of Health spokeswoman, said yesterday the wives of two officials – one from the Information Department and the other from the prisons department tested positive yesterday.

Meanwhile, Kheng said yesterday that around 90 people in his household tested negative for COVID-19.

To date, the Kingdom has reported 317 cases of COVID-19 with 301 recoveries, 16 under treatment and zero deaths since the pandemic first reared its head in Cambodia in late January.


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