Officials From 13 Gov’t Departments Getting Second Tests for Covid-19

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A Covid-19 testing center inside the campus of the Council of Ministers building in Phnom Penh on November 9, 2020. (Mech Dara/VOD)

A full day of Covid-19 testing is being carried out on Monday for government officials from 13 different ministries and institutions after having varying contact with a visiting Hungarian foreign minister who later tested positive for the disease.

Some officials held negotiations without masks; others shook hands; some returned to their office, went on a provincial visit, or attended a party before learning of the possible contagion, and indirect contacts are now in quarantine.

Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s foreign minister, visited Cambodia last Tuesday without going through quarantine procedures and tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Bangkok the same evening.

Some 944 people have come forward as Szijjarto’s suspected direct and indirect contacts as of Sunday. All tested negative in their first tests, according to the Health Ministry, but one bodyguard who worked directly with Szijjarto developed a cough after the initial test and was found to have the virus on his second test on Saturday.

The ministry has suggested quarantine and four tests for all suspected contacts, with the second test scheduled on Monday.

The Council of Ministers building in Phnom Penh was readied as a testing site, with different government departments given 30 to 90 minute slots throughout the day for testing — starting with the Foreign Affairs Ministry from 7 to 9:30 a.m., and ending with the National Bank from 6 to 7 p.m.

The ministries of agriculture, commerce, finance, water resources, transport, information, tourism and land management, as well as the prime minister’s cabinet office, National Assembly staff and Secretariat of Civil Aviation were also scheduled for testing.

Leng Peng Long, spokesperson for the National Assembly, said Szijjarto had come to the parliamentary building during his visit, but fewer than 10 staffers were being tested because the main contact was limited to CPP lawmaker and spokesperson Sous Yara.

Those two had talked without a mask, Peng Long said. “When they negotiated, they did not wear masks — I do not know why,” he said.

The Hungarian delegation only went to the meeting hall and nowhere else, he added.

“The Hungarians who came didn’t touch glasses or bowls for making coffee, and didn’t touch our tea or bottled water,” he said.

However, about three or four staff members who escorted the delegation to and from their cars or served them tea were being tested and quarantined at home, Peng Long said. Others chose to have tests out of concern and caution, he said.

“We didn’t know that he was sick so we received them,” he said.

Quarantine was not simple for some staff, he added. “It is difficult for them because some houses do not have many rooms, and [they] live with their children, wives and parents, so it is very difficult, but we keep checking on them.”

In Prey Veng province, administrative head Chheang Sovannara said 23 teachers were quarantined in a hotel after Commerce Ministry secretary of state Reach Ra held a party with them before learning of the possible contagion.

“He was far from the others, but he attended a meeting,” Sovannara said. “He came to eat and drink with his friends.”

Though Ra’s first test was negative, the teachers would take precautions as they awaited subsequent test results, he said.

“In Prey Veng, we’ve prepared it like this,” Sovannara said. “We set the plan in advance.”

At the Transport Ministry, 34 people have been tested and are in quarantine, said spokesperson Kong Vimean.

A ministry official who had studied in Hungary attended Szijjarto’s welcoming ceremony, he said.

“He did not shake his hand; he just attended. He later came to work without knowing that the foreign affairs minister was infected,” Vimean said.

Information Ministry spokesperson Meas Sophon said 25 officials at the ministry were undergoing tests. They were also quarantining at home, he said. “The majority of them wore masks,” he added.

At the Agriculture Ministry, in addition to several officials going into quarantine, documents were already being disinfected before getting passed around the office, said deputy cabinet director Chan Heng.

“We have to be careful and wear masks and wash hands with alcohol,” he added. “I am [also] quarantined at home … so I have to be careful myself too. It is a little boring, but we have to do it.”

Heng said he had gone on a provincial trip with minister Veng Sakhon, who had shaken hands with Szijjarto.

Finance Ministry spokesperson Meas Soksensan said his ministry was strict about quarantine.

“[Leadership] has completely banned the people who have been quarantined from going anywhere, and we have our group that keeps our eyes on them. … I regularly call to prevent these people from going anywhere,” Soksensan said.

State Secretariat of Civil Aviation spokesperson Chea Aun said Minister in Charge of Civil Aviation Mao Havannall was the only one who had contact with Szijjarto, and his driver, bodyguards and family were in quarantine.

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