In Person

“We Have a Couple of People who are Recovering”: MOHS Director-General

By Nyein Nyein 7 April 2020

In the past three months, Myanmar has tested over 1,340 people for the coronavirus; in the past two weeks, 22 have tested positive.

One of the 22 confirmed cases, who was also a cancer patient, died on March 31 of multiple causes including COVID-19. Of the 21 surviving patients, two are in intensive care and 19 are in stable condition and receiving treatment at six different hospitals across the country.

More than 70,000 people, including 70 health care workers, are under 14-day quarantines, some at government-designated facilities and others in home quarantines. The government is preparing more quarantine facilities and renovating or upgrading intensive care units at the country’s major public hospitals.

The Irrawaddy interviewed Dr. Tha Tun Kyaw, the director-general and spokesperson of the Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS), on the latest developments in tackling the coronavirus in Myanmar.

How many of the COVID-19 confirmed cases are now recovered, since we had the first confirmed cases two weeks ago?

We can say we have a couple of people who are recovering. While we are treating the confirmed COVID-19 patients, we conduct follow-up specimen tests for each of the patients.

We have found that one patient, case 4 [a 33-years-old man was confirmed positive on Mar 27], who is currently at Kandawnadi Hospital in Mandalay has tested negative twice. So we can say he is a recovered patient. As his lab tests came back negative twice, he falls under the WHO [World Health Organization] criteria to be discharged from the hospital when his 14-day quarantine is finished.

The other one is the woman who returned from Switzerland and is currently getting treatment at Naypyitaw Hospital. The result was negative when we ran the first follow-up test [after she was found with COVID-19 positive] and her second test result is due to come out tonight [Usually MOHS announces lab test results at 8 p.m. every day].

So do they have to stay in home quarantine after being discharged from the hospital?

Yes. We will be guiding them to help them stay at home for two more weeks, even though their treatment is over at the hospital, to make sure they are okay because we are still studying the new virus.

[The National Health Laboratory (NHL)] has been testing about 80 people per day, but the new lab is opening soon in Mandalay and the new SARS-CoV-2 testing machine, which has capacity to test more than a thousand people per day, is on the way. Do you think Myanmar will soon have more confirmed COVID-19 cases?

We cannot say that. We test only those who fall under our guidelines, set by the WHO criteria. Besides, testing as many people as possible does not mean that we are only looking for likely COVID-19-positive cases. We don’t assume that we will find more cases when we test more people. Our aim in opening a new lab center is to test more people and be able to quickly detect those who are infected with the coronavirus. Currently we send the swabs from upper Myanmar to be tested in Yangon’s NHL. Once the lab opens in Mandalay, we will be able to perform the test quickly and save the time spent sending them to Yangon.

How soon will the second laboratory for COVID-19 testing in Mandalay open?

For that, we are preparing the room, which needs to meet biosafety level 3 [set by the WHO] and all the guidelines. Our ministry is working together with the Mandalay regional government. We have the testing machine and equipment ready in our National Health Laboratory in Yangon. We expect that we will be able to open the new lab and start operations this month.

Case 1 was found in Tedim Township’s Keptel Village [in Chin State]. Is the village still under lockdown? When will this be lifted? Also, what about the testing of the doctor who treated the case 1 patient before he was confirmed positive for the coronavirus?

We have sent the swab specimen of the medical doctor [who took care of the patient] to the National Health Laboratory in Yangon. For Keptel Village, we and the Chin State Public Health Department are planning to take the swab specimens from those who had close contact with the patient, but not the whole village. The village has been under lockdown for almost 14 days and we will wait for the results of those tests. Only after that will we work together with the relevant authorities to lift the lockdown of the village. As of now, we have made the decision that we will wait for the test results.

You have said that the ministry [MOHS] has prepared designated hospitals across the country to treat patients if Myanmar has many more COVID-19-positive patients. Do you think they will be enough to provide treatment?

For our ministry, we have prepared everything we can. But as you know, this disease is unforeseen. We have seen more confirmed cases, also in other countries, and more patients are seriously suffering. Taking the lessons from other countries, where they have been struggling to treat overwhelming numbers of patients, we prepare as much as we can.

But if you ask whether it is enough, I would say it depends on the number of patients we have in the future. We don’t know yet how many more cases we will detect in a month. We cannot predict, so we work diligently to prepare ourselves. We can only say whether it is enough when we know the number of the patients. Right now it is early to say.

In the community quarantine centers, health safety is being questioned as the beds are just one or two meters apart and there is no glass or cover separating one person from another. There are concerns that a healthy person who is quarantined will get the infection after 14 days, given the living conditions and the potential to contract the virus from someone else. Do you worry about this and what would you do to address it?

You are right. These should be like ideal quarantine centers, but according to our country’s situation, we are using the existing facilities. We can’t make separate rooms as in many of the townships and rural areas, we are using the schools or monasteries as quarantine centers. But our priority was to separate the returnees from abroad from local residents for 14 days, and in this way we may have prevented some major consequences. We know these are not ideal facilities for quarantine.

Our health departments also urge those who completed 14-day quarantines to remain inside their homes for another 14 days.

This interview is edited for clarity.

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