Covid-19 cases spike in Bangkok while declining in most Thai islands and rural provinces

Island Wrap # 41: Health & Tourism edition for May 8-21, 2021

I produce these summaries by reviewing hundreds of articles, statistics, statements by officials, insights from people I trust and posts by journalists. Despite all of the work involved, this is nothing more than a news round up. Branch into the links that dot the summary for more depth from the many journalists covering the situation on the ground.


The Covid-19 situation looks grim after thousands of cases surfaced in prisons and a variant that’s ravaging India was detected for the first time in Thailand. As bad as things seem today, look closer and you will find positive news. Cases are subsiding in most provinces as Thailand inches closer to mass vaccinations.


By the numbers

Thailand reported 44,211 cases, or 3,158 per day on average, since my last Covid-19 update two weeks ago. The sharp increase is partly due to 14,049 cases found in 11 prisons, mainly in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, over that span.

On May 17th Thailand hit its single-day case record of the entire pandemic when 9,635 cases included 6,853 that had been accumulating in prisons. The country’s total pandemic numbers now stand at 123,066 cases and 735 deaths, with 94,203 of those cases and 641 of the deaths coming over the last two months.

The focus is increasingly on Bangkok, where authorities reported 14,654 cases among the general public over the past two weeks. Add nearby areas and the two-week case number for metro Bangkok spikes to 21,698 — and that figure does not include the thousands of cases found in Bangkok-area prisons.

The good news is that case numbers are trending down in most areas beyond metro Bangkok. Many provinces have been reporting daily cases in the single digits, with zero found in more than 20 provinces on some recent days.

Chonburi province (including Pattaya) reported 871 cases over the fortnight, a sharp decline compared to previous weeks. Daily cases there fell into the 30 to 40 range until more than 120 cases surfaced yesterday, mainly among migrant workers who are being proactively tested at factories and construction sites.

Not including provinces that border Bangkok like Samut Prakan, the next highest two-week case count among coastal provinces is Surat Thani with 476 (steady), followed by Phetchaburi with 432 (trending up), Chanthaburi with 394 (trending down), Prachuap Khiri Khan with 372 (trending down), Ranong with 362 (trending up), Songkhla with 354 (trending up), and Rayong with 244 (steady).

Satun province (home to Ko Lipe) reported only one case, total, over the past two weeks. Chumphon and Trat each found only 17 and Phang Nga had just 22. Krabi, Trang, Phatthalung and Pattani all fell into the 60 to 110 case range over the fortnight, and cases in all four of these provinces are trending down. The situation looks similarly manageable in most of the upcountry provinces.

Things are also looking better in the islands. The numbers are trending down on Phuket, which reported 115 cases over the past two weeks as compared with 272 over the two weeks prior. Ko Samui found no new cases over the past week, while no cases have surfaced on Ko Phangan or Ko Tao over the past 12 days. After more than a week with no reported cases, two infections discovered on Ko Chang (Trat) on May 20th brought that island’s total case count up to 31 since April 1st.

A total of 372 people sadly died of Covid-19 over the past two weeks in Thailand. One of them was tragically a two-month-old with a heart condition who, on May 18th, became the youngest Covid-19 fatality in Thailand to date.

Close to 50,000 patients are currently being treated for the virus nationwide, including more than 1,000 in serious conditions. New field hospitals like the one with 5,000 beds at Impact Arena north of Bangkok are meeting demand after worries about bed shortages earlier this month. Around 62% of Bangkok’s hospital beds — including in field hospitals — were occupied yesterday according to a government spokesperson. Covid-19 treatment remains free if using the public health system.

The nationwide testing rate fell slightly in recent days, while the positive rate has been climbing steadily according to Dylan Jay’s analysis.


Notable clusters

The prison outbreaks did not come to light until several well-known activists who had been held for several weeks in Bangkok-area prisons for alleged lèse-majesté offenses tested positive after they were released on bail. “According to the Thai government, almost half of those tested across eight prisons were found to have Covid-19 — 10,748 out of 24,537 inmates,” the BBC reported on May 18th.

The Justice Ministry is considering an early release of 50,000 inmates as the outbreaks draw attention to overcrowded conditions in prisons with little space for field hospitals. “Many people warned the Thai authorities that they needed to act proactively to avoid such a situation, but it seems they got caught sleeping at the switch,” remarked Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

Another worrying cluster is centered on cramped dorms for construction workers in the Lak Si area of Bangkok. Thailand’s first known 15 domestic cases of the B.1.617.2 variant — first detected in India — surfaced there yesterday. Officials reported close to a 30% positive rate in the area after testing 3,671 of the workers earlier this week.

The Lak Si site is one of several areas where outbreaks have been reported among low-wage construction and factory workers. “Camps with infected workers are required to adopt the ‘bubble and seal’ measure where workers are not allowed to leave their dormitories and construction sites,” reported Bangkok Post.

Meanwhile, proactive testing continues to reveal thousands of other infections in areas all around the megacity. Recent outbreaks have been discovered in parts of Sathorn and Silom along with the Pak Khlong Talad flower-vending area and several other parts of Bangkok. Among them are 10 markets which are temporarily closed, including the enormous fresh markets in Khlong Toei and Bang Kapi.

Reports of other outbreaks over the past two weeks include:

Additionally, the Thai national women’s volleyball team was forced to cancel a trip to Italy for a tournament after 22 players and staff tested positive.

A Norwegian-flagged ship has been forced to remain anchored east of Ko Nu in Songkhla province after six of its 29 crew members tested positive following a journey that included stops in India and Singapore.

A famous Thai actress from Bangkok who tested positive after posting photos of herself island hopping without a mask in the Ko Samui area was harshly criticized for ignoring travel advisories and containment measures.

And 11 Bangkok taxi drivers sadly died from Covid-19 over a recent three-week stretch, prompting calls for vaccine prioritization for those in the taxi profession. In the meantime, some drivers are turning to protective amulets as monks chant Buddhist scriptures to “ward off Covid-19” in Thai temples.


Containment measures

Authorities moved Chonburi into the red zone, leaving only Bangkok and the neighboring provinces of Nonthaburi, Pathum Thani and Samut Prakan in the dark-red or “highest-controlled” zone. The only major change in dark-red provinces is that dine-in with social distancing is now allowed until 9:00 PM at restaurants. This TAT update has more details on rules in each zone.

Many Bangkok residents are angry that public parks remain closed, forcing exercisers into the streets and car parks because gyms are also shuttered. Intended or not, a BK Magazine article titled “8 restaurants with awesome views of Bangkok’s closed parks” subtly pointed out the double standard — from a public health standpoint — of allowing dine-in at restaurants when parks are closed.

Restaurants in Phuket, Krabi, Surat Thani, Chonburi and several other provinces are now open for dine-in until 11:00 PM, but bars are closed and alcohol can only be consumed at home nationwide. Enforcers on Phuket have been notably strict, arresting people for drinking on Patong Beach and fining six Britons 6,000 baht for gathering in a private home. Recent footage shows Phuket police forcing people to do push ups on a footpath as a penalty for not wearing masks.

Residents of Pattaya and other parts of Chonburi province are unhappy that beaches are open for exercise only. “Pattaya Beach (is) closed entirely to people who wish to walk by the water with officials spending entire days chasing people off the beach,” reported The Pattaya News. Pattaya police are also on the hunt for social drinkers, recently arresting 20 people caught boozing in a restaurant.

The start of the new school term was again postponed by two weeks in Bangkok and the other dark-red provinces, this time until June 14th. Schools in other provinces may be able to reopen June 1st, depending on the stances of local authorities. Many universities also plan to reopen on the 14th of next month.


Travel restrictions

Domestic travel is still strongly discouraged nationwide. Many provinces and islands require travelers from dark-red and red provinces to do a 14-day quarantine or show proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid-19 test before entering. With cases declining in more rural provinces, these restrictions are likely to persist for travelers coming from metro Bangkok and other hard-hit areas.

Phuket finally ditched its rapid test upon arrival option and adopted the stricter measures for travelers from several provinces, including nearby Krabi, Trang and Surat Thani. Passengers are no longer allowed to board flights to Phuket without one of the necessary documents. “A huge traffic tailback saw long delays for people coming onto the island by road on May 15th, the last day of free rapid antigen tests for Thais wanting to enter Phuket,” reported The Phuket News.

Ko Samet surprisingly reopened to tourism earlier this week. Ko Phi Phi did the same, but only one ferry is operating out of Krabi and that province has the vaccine or test or quarantine rule for travelers from red and dark-red zones. Uninhabited islands in Hat Noppharat Thara - Mu Ko Phi Phi and Khao Laem Ya - Mu Ko Samet marine parks, as well as all attractions in 108 other Thai national parks, remain closed.

Residents of Ko Larn opted to remain closed to non-residents until at least June 1st. In the upper Andaman, the Ko Phayam community is extending its travel closure on a weekly basis, even if residents were finally allowed back onto the island if agreeing to quarantine.

While most of Ko Chang remains open to travelers who pass Trat province’s vaccine or testing requirements, the villages around Salak Phet in the southeast of the island recently closed their entry road to outsiders.


Vaccinations

Roughly 100,000 people received a Covid-19 vaccine dose on some recent days as the rollout slowly gathers steam. As of yesterday, more than 1.7 million people have received one dose while more than 900,000 are fully inoculated.

Vaccinations are currently being administered in Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya and Ko Samui, among other areas, and the official mass rollout is expected to begin on June 7th as planned. The Health Ministry recently advanced its inoculation timeline, stating that it now hopes to vaccinate 70% of Thailand’s roughly 70 million people by the end of September, rather than December as previously planned.

The AstraZeneca doses now being produced domestically in the tens of millions by Siam Bioscience passed crucial quality testing, while the Moderna vaccine became the latest to be cleared for use by the Thai FDA. That variety is specially earmarked for private hospitals which have agreed to keep their “Moderna packages” below 3,000 baht. But based on the Health Minister’s most recent remarks, it’s unlikely that doses from Moderna, Pfizer, Sputnik V or any firms other than AstraZeneca and Sinovac will be available before the fourth quarter this year.

A lot of vaccine-related frustration and anxiety remains. Referring to production progress at Siam Bioscience, an anonymous “senior source” from the Health Ministry explained to Thai Enquirer that “they’re having problems scaling up their operations so whatever the estimate is right now for June, the number they produce won’t be half of that … Even if we get 20 million vaccines from them in June, it doesn’t matter because we do not have the capacity to vaccinate at a high number.”

Prioritizing residents of the Thai capital rather than anyone over 60 years old nationwide, as previously planned, now seems sensible. “So we will reallocate available doses with a focus on greater Bangkok where the situation is most serious. We now intend to inoculate 70 percent of Bangkok residents within two months,” a vice minister of Public Health told Thai PBS World.

Health Ministry officials also promised “walk-in” vaccinations that would not require advanced registration starting next month, only to be contradicted when the Prime Minister “put the brakes” on the idea less than a week later. “On site” registration is the most recent iteration of the proposal, but it has not yet been confirmed and many people still don’t know when or where they’ll get vaccinated.

This is especially true of foreign residents. An announcement yesterday by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson revealed that at least 10 agencies would be involved in vaccinating foreigners who are being split into six categories, leading some non-Thais to wonder why they’re being treated differently.

Others saw the announcement as positive news because, for the first time, it clarified with a semblance of certainty that foreigners can register for free vaccinations when the mass rollout begins on June 7th. The reassurance comes after staff from several hospitals said foreigners are not eligible for vaccines, and some foreign teachers reported being denied vaccines even when their Thai colleagues were inoculated.

Vaccine hesitancy also appears to be a persistent problem in Thailand. To encourage vaccinations, fast-food joints are giving away snacks, while one rural district up north is offering residents who get inoculated a chance to win a cow.


Tourism reopening goals

Despite all of the challenges mentioned in this article, officials appear to be holding firm to the ‘Phuket Sandbox’ plan with an aim to reopen the island to vaccinated inbound tourists without quarantine on July 1st. If all goes well on Phuket, the ‘Sandbox’ would be extended to as many as nine other destinations including Ko Samui, Pattaya and parts of Krabi, Phang Nga and Phetchaburi provinces on October 1st.

The vaccination rate on Phuket now stands at just over 20%, meaning that health officials have a lot of work to do if the population is to reach the desired 70% inoculation rate before July 1st. Tourism officials insist that they expect 129,000 foreign tourists to visit Phuket during the third quarter this year.

More announcements are expected on the ‘Sandbox’ soon, and I’ll take a more detailed look at remaining obstacles in a dedicated article soon. With 80% to 90% of tourism-related businesses closed nationwide according to Bangkok Post, millions of people are eagerly waiting to see a little light at the end of the tunnel. 🌴

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