HANOI: Vietnam confirmed its first outbreak of the coronavirus in nearly two months on Thursday (Jan 28) and warned it could be more serious than its last wave of infections, as authorities rushed to contain the spread and test tens of thousands of people.
The health ministry earlier on Thursday reported two locally transmitted cases, the country's first in 55 days, one of which was exposed to an individual who had tested positive in Japan for the more contagious B117 UK variant.
The 83 infections announced on Thursday were a new record daily for Vietnam, which has effectively closed its borders and avoided the larger epidemics seen by its neighbours. Previously the country had recorded just more than 1,550 cases and 35 deaths since the virus was first detected.
The outbreak, in Hai Duong and Quang Ninh provinces near the capital Hanoi, is the biggest in Vietnam since a cluster emerged in the central city of Danang in July and quickly spread to most regions of the country, leading to its first coronavirus fatalities.
"We think the outbreak in Hai Duong will be worse than the one in Danang," Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long said at an urgent meeting on the sidelines of the Communist Party's five-yearly Congress.
"We will take tens of thousands of samples for testing today," he told the meeting, an audio recording of which was reviewed by Reuters.
Long said Vietnam had so far not seen so many tests come back positive: A total of 72 out of 138 people to have come into contact with one of the two new cases reported on Thursday morning tested positive for the virus, Long said.
The two patients reported earlier in the day include a support staff worker at Van Don international airport who was responsible for taking infected passengers arriving from abroad to COVID-19 quarantine facilities.
The other case is a factory worker who came into contact with a Vietnamese national who later travelled to Japan and tested positive there for the new UK variant of the virus, which has been determined to be much more easily transmissible.
"The airport staff worker has been to several public places, including hospital," the health ministry said in its statement.
"For the factory worker case, considering its involvement with the UK variant, contact tracing has to be done as fast as possible but in a very cautious and careful manner."
A village and an electronics factory were locked down on Thursday, with 2,340 workers quarantined in Hai Duong and huge contact tracing efforts launched.
The outbreak will be a jolt for Vietnam, which, owing to strict quarantine, testing and tracing measures, has kept the virus in check, earning it a top three spot in a survey of how well countries have handled the pandemic.
"We have to make all efforts to locate the infected areas within 10 days to put down the outbreak," Vu Duc Dam, head of the national COVID-19 task force said in a health ministry statement.
Containment efforts could be complicated by an upcoming Lunar New Year holiday period, when big gatherings indoors are typical.
The outbreak also comes at an awkward time for Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, as it holds its most important gathering, during which a new national leadership will be decided.
"We've encountered such problem many times so we have to stay calm," Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said at Thursday's emergency meeting, calling for strong measures but not to cause panic.
A first wave of infections was crushed in April, and the country went nearly 100 days without local transmission until the Danang outbreak.