Up to Quarter of Returnees From Thailand Testing Positive for Covid-19

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Authorities at the O’Smach International Border Checkpoint check temperatures of Cambodian workers returning from Thailand, in a photograph posted to the Immigration Department’s Facebook page on March 23, 2020.

As much as 25 percent of migrant workers coming back from Covid-stricken Thailand are testing positive, according to provincial authorities, as some returnees said they believe they are contracting the disease in crowded quarantine centers along the border.

In Banteay Meanchey province, deputy governor Ros Sophany said 4,313 returnees had so far been sent to quarantine centers as of Tuesday. Around 300 had arrived in the past seven days, and 25 percent of them had been found to have Covid-19, she said.

Oddar Meanchey deputy governor Dy Rado said around 400 migrant workers had returned through the O’Smach border since early this month, and more than 100 tested positive for Covid-19.

Nationally, hundreds of imported Covid-19 cases are being announced by the Health Ministry every day, though in recent months the ministry has been withholding information about where the cases are being found. Thailand is meanwhile continuing to see well over 10,000 Covid-19 infections a day, its worst outbreak to date.

In Battambang, Phnom Proek district governor Song Sopheak said quarantine centers were housing more than 10 people per room last week, up from the normal capacity of four to five. Though he said that numbers were stable or declining, authorities were preparing two more quarantine centers to house anticipated arrivals.

Heab Koun Nga, a construction worker, returned to the country from Bangkok with his wife on July 10 as he had no work amid the outbreak and was afraid of getting infected.

He initially tested negative at Banteay Meanchey’s Poipet border checkpoint, but after a week at a quarantine center began to show symptoms of fever and shortness of breath.

He had been sharing a room with seven other returnees, and he understood that other rooms around him housed positive Covid-19 patients, including one who died during his stay, he said. He tested positive on July 19.

Though authorities point out that he could have already had the virus, and Koun Nga noted that he had reached the border in a van with four other passengers, the conditions at the center made him suspicious.

“I was infected with the disease at that Phnom Srok [quarantine center]. I had nothing when I returned from Thailand,” he said.

The 33-year-old said he was now losing his sense of smell, and was afraid he would face discrimination when he returned to his hometown and would struggle to get a job.

Sin Kimson arrived from Thailand’s Saraburi province to Battambang’s Phnom Proek district in June, and tested negative twice on her first and 14th days in quarantine at the Pich Chenda secondary school.

But after over two weeks in a room with 11 other migrant workers, the 23-year-old tested positive on her third test.

“It was on the 18th day, when it was time to leave for home soon. I thought we would be able to leave on the 18th day, but because of that, we couldn’t leave,” Kimson said. “I think that I was infected at Pich Chenda.”

Kimson’s husband, Vinh Vet, said the couple had tried to be careful and keep a distance from others in quarantine, but rooms had 10 to 20 people in them, with new arrivals all the time at the center. There were hundreds of returnees at the secondary school and many positive cases were being found.

The couple wore masks even when sleeping, but they were still infected, Vet said.

“If anybody returns from Thailand and they come to the Pich Chenda school, they always catch [Covid-19]. No one can escape,” Vet said.

Sopheak, the Phnom Proek district governor, denied any spread of the virus in the quarantine center. Many positive cases were being found, but Covid-19 — especially the more contagious Delta variant — could remain dormant in patients for three weeks, Sopheak said.

“We dare to claim that because the medical technical workers have mentioned that. They might already have the disease from Thailand, but it is not found in the first test or the 14th day. It’s because the disease can stay up to 21 days before a positive,” Sopheak said. Some health experts, however, have said the Delta variant has a shorter incubation period.

Battambang provincial health department director Voeung Bunreth said that if there were infections in quarantine centers, it was because residents were not following precautionary health measures. Positive patients were all sent to treatment centers, not quarantine, he said.

“They did not maintain their hygiene, safe distances, or they went somewhere messy leading to infection. Where did they go and get infected? Where to? People staying there are negative, so where were they infected?” Bunreth said.

Dy Thehoya, a program officer at labor rights group Central, said shared bathrooms were a concern, and more quarantine centers should be set up to prevent crowding.

“I think that no matter how protective you are, if you use the same bathroom together with a lot of people, like that, it is more than a possibility,” Thehoya said. “If someone in a room is infected, somebody else, no matter how protective they are, it’s difficult to be protected in that shared environment.”

The Health Ministry announced a further 766 new Covid-19 cases on Wednesday, 307 of them imported. The country has now seen 9,721 total imported cases and 75,152 infections overall.

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