Vaccines Won’t End Outbreak, Officials Say, Urging Continued Caution

4 min read
Health workers investigate a Phnom Penh residence while Covid-19 patients wait in the back of an ambulance van in a photo posted to the Stung Meanchey commune hall Facebook page on April 26, 2021.

Health officials have reiterated that vaccines prevent Covid-19 deaths but not transmission, as they blamed members of the public for the country’s ongoing surge.

Significant outbreaks continue to be seen even in highly vaccinated communities. Last month, hundreds of workers at a factory in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district tested positive for Covid-19 despite workers saying that 80 percent of them had been vaccinated twice. Meanwhile, City Hall has temporarily closed the Boeng Keng Kang, Olympic and Central markets due to Covid-19 outbreaks, even though health officials say nearly 100 percent of the city is vaccinated.

Health Ministry secretary of state Ngov Kang reiterated at a Monday press conference that vaccines will not prevent all infections, but can reduce symptoms, severity of the disease, and deaths.

“At this point, there is a lot of confusion that after being vaccinated, [people can] stop following the three-pronged approach,” Kang said, referring to health precautions such as social distancing. “They go out without wearing a mask, they go have fun. They try to wear a mask when outside, but when they meet each other at restaurants, they normally take off their masks, and the transmission occurs during that time. And when we ask them, they say: Don’t be afraid — we have already been vaccinated.”

Phnom Penh deputy governor Keut Chhe said around 1.6 million people in Phnom Penh, or nearly 100 percent of the population aged over 18, had received vaccinations. The Health Ministry also said last week that around 99.2 percent in the city were vaccinated.

But some people were not respecting health measures like wearing masks, elevating risks, Chhe said.

“The government does not prohibit people from meeting each other, but keep a distance, [follow] the three dos and don’ts. But they can’t do it. If they would follow the three dos and three don’ts, we think the ‘February 20’ event should have ended by now and it wouldn’t be at the red line,” Chhe said.

City Hall has stopped disclosing how many daily cases the capital is seeing, but in the Monday press conference suggested it was around 100 to 300 a day, mostly in densely populated areas. The mortality rate was around 1 percent, mostly elderly people, it said.

Phnom Penh health department director Ngy Mean Heng said the mortality rate remained lower than the global average, which he said was around 2 percent of infected cases. “So it’s not an indicator on which we should place too much concern, but we should not be careless with ourselves like riding a horse without holding the reins.”

However, Yong Kim Eng, president of NGO the People’s Center for Development and Peace, said that although officials always blame members of the public for transmission, it was the government that relaxed restrictions around the city.

Allowing restaurants to reopen too early was a major mistake that led to the increase, he said.

He called for the city to reinstate a ban on alcohol, as people drinking and shouting without masks was likely a significant vector.

“If the authorities continue to allow the use of alcohol, the sale of alcohol, the situation will not be easy to curb. The best thing is that if we want other sectors to be able to operate, we must stop drinking, stop selling alcohol advertising for a while,” Kim Eng said.

City Hall ended its ban on alcohol sales and reopened restaurants on May 21, as Covid-19 numbers were seeing a decline. The country was seeing around 450 daily cases at the time. In recent days, new cases have been around 900 a day.

The mortality rate since the start of the outbreak remains low nationwide at around 1.5 percent, with 953 deaths to 62,700 cases, though recent weeks have seen a slow climb. The mortality rate was around 0.7 percent at the beginning of June.

In May, the Health Ministry stopped disclosing where cases were being found. Regarding data availability, the U.N. in Cambodia said this month that despite “progress,” “significant data gaps exist, including in the level of disaggregation required, geographical coverage and timeliness.”

In Singapore, where vaccination rates for first doses reached nearly 70 percent as of the weekend, government ministers have spoken of “living normally, with Covid-19.” The disease may not be eradicated and could be treated more like the flu, including Covid-19 patients simply recovering at home, focusing on hospitalization rates rather than new infections, and resuming gatherings and travel, they said.

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