BANGKOK: Bangkok could be declared a COVID-19 red zone ahead of the Thai water festival next week after new clusters involving pubs and bars caused a sharp increase in infections in the Thai capital.
The Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) reported 334 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday (Apr 7), which included 216 patients from Bangkok alone.
On the same day, local media reported that transport minister Saksayam Chidchob has tested positive for the coronavirus.
Several cabinet ministers and dozens of lawmakers were also in self-isolation after coming into contact with patients of COVID-19. They include health minister Anutin Charnvirakul, education minister Treenuch Thienthong and deputy prime minister Wisanu Kreungam.
Several new clusters have been found in Bangkok’s pubs and bars, particularly in Wattana district. Between Mar 22 and Apr 6, CCSA reported 257 COVID-19 infections from this area, which houses a number of entertainment venues frequented by partygoers and musicians.
Besides Bangkok, more COVID-19 infections were also reported at entertainment venues in surrounding provinces such as Chonburi, Samut Prakarn, Suphan Buri and Nonthaburi.
Given the approaching water festival Songkran - Thailand’s public holidays which fall on Apr 12 to 15 this year - Thailand’s academic committee under the Communicable Disease Act of 2015 proposed that the Disease Control Department recategorise different provinces into zones to reflect the level of COVID-19 control measures.
“The committee has considered the situation and determined that provinces where the communicable disease is gaining strength be categorised as red zones, especially when infections involve entertainment venues and a lot of travelling,” said director-general of the Disease Control Department Opas Kankawinpong on Monday.
The proposed red zones include Bangkok, Pathum Thani, Nonthaburi, Samut Prakarn and Nakhon Pathom.
According to CCSA, the decision will be decided by the Public Health Ministry and the Interior Ministry.
“The Disease Control Department and the Public Health Ministry have expressed concern that entertainment venues could contribute to interprovincial transmission because once an entertainment venue has to close temporarily, its staff may need to find work elsewhere," CCSA assistant spokesperson Apisamai Srirangsan said in a press conference on Wednesday.
"As a result, there has been a proposal to recategorise provinces and areas into different zones."
She added that as of now, the recategorisation has yet to happen. "However, we’d like the public to closely follow developments because within the next few days, the Health Ministry and the Interior Ministry will discuss this issue in detail."
On Monday, Bangkok governor Aswin Kwanmuang ordered temporary closure of entertainment venues, massage parlours and businesses similar to pubs, bars and karaoke venues in Wattana, Klongtoei and Bangkae districts from Apr 6 to 19.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said on Wednesday he has "several concerns" about the pandemic and urged the public to protect themselves by wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing and avoiding areas at risk of infections.
"The government needs to close certain venues. If any venue is detected without COVID-19 control measures in place, it'll face closure immediately," he said after a Cabinet meeting.
According to the prime minister, he has ordered field hospitals to be prepared in Bangkok in case of high transmission rates.
Meanwhile, Dr Yong Poovorawan from the Center of Excellence in Clinical Virology at the Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, shared a preliminary report about the coronavirus variant found at entertainment venues in Wattana district.
"The COVID-19 strain spreading at the entertainment venues, based on a preliminary test, is the UK strain," he wrote on his Facebook page, adding confirmation is pending on genomic sequencing.
The preliminary report shared by Dr Yong said the UK strain can spread 1.7 times faster than the "wild type" strain found previously in Bangkok.
Currently, more than 1,700 patients are receiving treatment for COVID-19, CCSA said on Wednesday, adding 13 of them are in critical conditions.
This year, the Thai government has banned the street water fights that usually take place during the Songkran celebrations due to the pandemic.
"Water splashing will not happen this Songkran. We must ask you to cooperate with us," Taweesin Wisanuyothin, a spokesman for Thailand's COVID-19 taskforce, told a briefing last month.
He said foam parties would also be banned, though a tradition of pouring water over the hands of older people, religious activities and travel between provinces to visit relatives would be allowed.