COVID-19 Slipping Out of Control?
By Dilanthi Jayamanne
COVID-19 claimed the life of the 14th Sri Lankan on Thursday (22). Although the country may not have the epic number of deaths that are being recorded in other countries, the infected numbers were escalating by the 100s overnight. Meanwhile, the Epidemiology Unit of the Health Ministry continuous to hold steadfastly to its stance that that there was no community spread of COVID 19 till now.
Spokesman of the Health Ministry, Dr. Jayaruwan Bandara said that it was best to safeguard oneself against the virus rather than basking in the assurance of scientific definitions given by a certain sections of the Health Ministry.
But the President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science Sri Lanka (CMLSSL) Ravi Kumudesh reiterated the call, of the World Health Organisation (WHO), to expect the worst scenario when preventing and controlling the virus.
Secretary of the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) Dr. Senal Fernando observed that one of the definitions of community transmission of the COVID -19 was when multiple clusters with unknown origins were identified from the society.
Currently the Epidemiology Unit, in collaboration with the Health Ministry, has been able to trace the origin of all sub clusters to the existing Brandix cluster at its Minuwangoda facility. However unlike in the other clusters, the country experienced during the first half of this year starting with the Tour guide cluster, there were clusters at Keselwatta Bandaranaike Place, the Welisara Navy Camp and the Kandakadu Drug Rehabilitation Centre. The latter had one sub cluster at Rajanganaya arising from a house where there had been a funeral.
However, the current Brandix Cluster, at its Minuwangoda Facility, erupted into several sub clusters, the latest is at the Colombo Dock Yard and the Peliyagoda Fish Market. According to Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) and Medical Officer of Health (MoH) the spread itself was due to persons from the Brandix Minuwangoda cluster going on leave to their homes situated in various parts of the country, including Badulla and Jaffna. Further, weddings held in the Udabaddawa Kuliyapitiya and Divulapitiya developed into a wedding sub cluster. Reports said that a nurse affiliated to the Hirdaramani apparels in Kahathuduwa attended the Wedding at Divulapitiya. She too was infected with the virus and it resulted in the Kahathuduwa Hirdaramani employees being subjected to more PCR tests. Also, another sub cluster ensued at Mathugama.
The Colombo Dockyard too allegedly contracted the infection from person from the Minuwangoda Brandix Facility who had visited Aluthgama. The said person had a connection to the Dockyard employee’s wife. Thereby the alleged birth of yet another sub cluster.
Since then, patients have been identified in Various Commercial institutions such as BoC Polpithigama, Kurunegala, HNB Towers, and NDB Marine Drive, an institution in the World Trade Centre, the Customs, and the Police Department. Also, in addition to the Paliyagoda Fishmarket, the Manning Market, the Dehiwala Market, and the Fisheries harbours of Beruwala have already been closed.
The Chief Epidemiologist, Dr Sudath Samaraweera said that those at the Brandix Facility in Minuwangoda had been to the Peliyagoda Fish Market. While persons from outstations and fish mongers had come to the market to purchase fish to be sold in various parts of the country. One can only imagine how far the virus would reach from then onwards.
By the end of this week however the Government Medical Officers’ Association warned that the country was on the verge of a community spread of COVID-19.
By the beginning of this week over 300 COVID-19 patients had been identified. diagnosed with COVID-19 in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone as it employs over 32,000 people, as of yesterday’s (19) morning. However, PCR tests will be conducted on those employees again.
Tourism Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said that there is no need to close the Katunayake Free Trade Zone yet, adding that further action would be taken on the recommendations of the health sector.
Nearly 5,000 employees of the Katunayake Free Trade Zone were subjected to PCR tests on 18 October.
The Minister also said that steps had been taken to provide guidelines for the deployment of Manpower employees in factories within and outside the Board of Investment (BoI) Free Trade Zones. “These steps were taken in accordance with the recommendations of the health department. Accordingly, factory owners have been instructed to employ the same team of workers when employing manpower in factories,” he added.
The Minister said that the BoI is paying special attention to the implementation of health guidelines in factories and that follow up is being carried out on a regular basis.
The Education Ministry also pledged to allocate more funds to safeguard students sitting for the GCE Advance Level examination. Director General of the Government Information Department, said that examinations were being held in 2,648 centres. A sum of Rs 15,000 would be deposited to School Development Funds of all schools at which the examination was being held on the instructions of Education Minister, Prof. G.L. Peiris.
Chief Public Health Inspector Negombo Municipal Council (NMC), H.A. U.K. Gunaratne said that the Supermarket and Fair functioning under the Council had been temporarily closed after a couple owning a textile shop at the Supermarket had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Sources at the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) said that four persons, including the cashier, and the owner of a wholesale business in Fourth Cross Street Pettah were tested positive for COVID- 19. They said that the cashier of a business who had been taken to Nawaloka due to a medical emergency had undergone a PCR test before being admitted and had tested positive for COVID.
PCR tests were carried out on his daughter, on Friday (16) and she too had tested positive for COVID. A PCR carried out on Saturday (17) had revealed that the owner of the business and two shop assistants had also tested positive. Measures were taken to quarantine all contacts while the patients were sent to treatment facilities.
The Conductor of a bus travelling from Kodikamum to Punkuduthivu, in the Jaffna District, tested positive for the COVID 19 virus on Sunday (17) after he allegedly came into contact with an employee of the Brandix cluster at the Minuwangoda facility, who had travelled in the bus. The woman is said to have travelled in three buses starting from Colombo on 3 October 2020. She had got off the bus at Puttalam when it had broken down and switched to buses from Puttalam to Kodikamum where she changed buses once more to travel to her destination in Punkuduthivu.
Following the particular passenger testing positive for the virus, PCR tests were conducted on the driver and the conductor of the bus as well. The first PCR test on the conductor tested negative. However, he was quarantined at his home in Thumbhull. While a second PCR test done 15 days later tested positive.
The area in which the conductor and his family live was locked down. Sources said that a decision as to where the patient was to be transferred for treatment was to be decided by the Health Ministry.
The Health Ministry has also lined up several hospitals in the Northern Province to treat COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms.
Sources said that the Base Hospitals of Mankulam and Mullaithivu as well as a facility which had been under the armed forces in Krishnapuram Kilinochchi Maradankerney in Jaffna, Vidathalthivu in Mannar were to be converted to facilities to treat and isolate suspect COVID 19 patients from the Brandix cluster at the facility in Minuwangoda.
Sources said that the institution in Krishnapuram Kilinochchi had been used by the LTTE during the war to educate disabled LTTE cadres till it was taken over by the Sri Lanka Army.
The Army was handing it over to medical services to convert it to a Hospital with a 200-bed strength for asymptomatic corona patients.
There has also been a call for the Epidemiology unit to reveal as to whether there was a community transmission of COVID -19 without leaving room for various persons to comment on the prevailing COVID-19 situation.
Also several hospitals have been faced with the dilemma of having dealt with patients who had subsequently tested positive for the virus or had staff who were related to patients. The Executive Committee Member of the GMOA, Dr. Haritha Aluthge he said that the facts were only known even to union members as only incidents. “Thereby we know that certain wards and even the ICU facilities of the National Hospital, Teaching Hospital Kuliyapitiya, Dambadenya and Minuwangoda were amongst them.
The Union said that with quarantine centres overcrowded, there was need to revisit the quarantine method that was being observed at present. GMOA Secretary, Dr. Senal Fernando said that the union had written to the President in this regard as well.
The current method of placing all first contacts in quarantine centres had led to the overcrowding of those places. A method should be introduced to quarantine first contacts in their homes if possible under the observation of the area Medical Officer of Health. The situation is such, at present, the number of first contacts of the Brandix Minuwangoda Cluster had topped 2,300 while the number of those in quarantine centres had exceeded 7,000.
Unlike when the country was faced with the cluster that was detected at Keselwatta, Bandaranaike Place, earlier this year, in which the situation was an exception due to the situation of the area, some of the contacts of the patients, being identified in the present cluster, could be quarantined in their homes under the observation of the MoH. He noted that the National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) was worried as these were all first level contacts that had been identified.
The World Health Organisation has cautioned against any relaxation of response actions following the recent slight decline in COVID-19 cases in South-East Asia Region (SEAR), saying the pandemic continues unabated. “Our response only needs to be strengthened further to curtail virus transmission,” WHO SEAR South-East Asia Region, Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh said.
She warned that the upcoming festival season and the approaching winter cold season threatened to aggravate the situation. Seasonal influenza and COVID-19 may present challenges for health services and health facilities, as both diseases present similar symptoms, she said.
The Public Health Inspectors’ Union of Sri Lanka (PHIUSL) said they had requested the support of the Police after some of their members had been threatened by those being sent to quarantine and kept in home quarantine.
Secretary of the PHIUSL, M. Balasooriya said that there had been incidents where persons being taken for quarantining in the Gampaha and Kuliyapitiya areas had threatened them with death while they were sent for quarantine.
Most of these people are taken as there are no possible means of quarantining them due to lack of space in their houses.
He noted however that although the PHI union was viewing the situation with empathy, legal action would be taken against those who fail to comply under quarantine laws by obstructing the duties of PHIs.
Police curfew was imposed in the six Police areas in Colombo District from Thursday (22).The areas are Mattakkuliya, Mutwal, Bloemendhal, Wellampitiya, Grandpass and Kotahena after identifying of COVID-19 cases from the Peliyagoda Fish Market and surrounding areas in addition to that which has been imposed in the Gampaha District.
Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana said curfew will be in effect till 5 a.m. on Monday, based on the recommendations of the Director General of Health Services (Cover up). He urged the area residents to limit travelling and remain at home.
Several railway services of Sri Lanka Railway have been suspended until further notice while some others have suspended services only on weekends due to the spread of COVID-19 within the island.
The Media spokesman of Sri Lanka Railway Department, Nihal Rupasiri noted that three railway services from Colombo to Kandy, Maradana to Beliatta and Colombo Fort to Polonnarwa have been suspended until further notice, while two trains, which travel to Kankesanturai from Colombo Fort and Mount Lavinia will operate only on the weekends. This decision was taken after monitoring the movement of commuters at the railway station and bookings received by the Railway Department.
Also, he noted that the railway services will not be available in quarantine curfew-imposed areas and the trains will not stop in the areas of Ambepussa and Negombo, however, the students who sit for the General Certification of Education, Advance Level can use their admission card as a pass to travel in the train by informing that particular railway office.
The virus may have had a devastating impact on Sri Lanka’s apparel industry which was one of the chief earners of foreign revenue for Sri Lanka. With the first wave in late February, when all Board of Investment (BoI) factories too were closed till about late April to Early June, the expected loss at the time amounted to U.S. Dollars 1.5 million. However the industry is yet to quantify its present loss.
Informed sources said that although the apparel industry had not lost its current orders yet, there was a question as to whether it would receive more orders in the near future or whether those orders would be diverted to other countries.
The country was managing to muddle through the day after having been shut down for almost five months of this year. The economy collapsed face down as a result with the daily wage earner just barely managing to earn a day’s pay. Can Sri Lanka afford to face a second blow to its economy? Moreover, can our free health service sustain the growing demand from the multiple sub clusters that stem from the Brandix Facility in Minuwangoda?