Could quarantine facilities be slacking?
Almost the same time the tourism authorities welcomed the first batch of long-stay tourists from China last week, local media reported a new infection, a Thai-French woman, who completed the mandatory alternative state quarantine (ASQ) and somehow, after she left, tested positive for the coronavirus.
We know that the 57-year-old woman was quarantined at a hotel in Samut Prakan. She developed a fever the second day after she left the site, at which point she was with her family in Samui.
However, we are still in the dark as to where exactly she contracted the virus, as health authorities are frantically probing the case. Did she catch it while in Samui (her family have tested negative -- so far) or was it during her time in quarantine?
A week later, the Public Health Ministry vowed to streamline alternative state quarantine (ASQ) standards. In principle, all state equarantine and ASQ facilities are required to follow strict guidelines and maintain standards, but the Health Ministry conceded there may be errors at certain stages. It promised to identify and fix these problems within two weeks.
But before the ministry could detect the problem in the Thai-French woman's case, it was reported that another two foreign men, who were at the same quarantine facility as the woman, also caught the virus.
While the probe into the Thai-French woman's case remains inconclusive, it's confirmed that the two men contracted the virus in the ASQ. Some media outlets said it's believed that the woman caught the virus when she used the fitness centre at the ASQ hotel.
How could she possibly catch the virus from a gym during quarantine if we are living in a "sealed" kingdom where Thai returnees are required to strictly observe a 14-day isolation in state quarantine facilities?
I'm sure the standards and guildelines by the Ministry of Public Health have been strictly followed by Thai returnees staying at state quarantine facilities. But I'm not sure if the same standards and guildelines have been applied to all ASQ facilities, which are also open to Thai returnees. The three infections, the Thai-French woman and the two foreign men, seem to suggest a flaw in the case of ASQs.
Over the past several months, many Thai people I know managed to return home, but some still can't make it back due to the quota system. Some of those who returned stayed in state quarantine while a few who could afford higher prices chose to isolate at an ASQ facility. The two groups shared with me different stories which suggested double standards.
A friend who landed earlier this month with her family stayed at state quarantine in Chon Buri. The whole family had to stay in their rooms almost 24/7. They could only leave their rooms for a test or open the door three times a day to pick up meals that were delivered to their doorstep. One returnee told me she had to quickly close the door if somebody happened to be around when she opened the door.
But another friend staying at an ASQ in Bangkok said she was allowed to leave her room for 45 minutes a day in the second week. But she could only be in an open-air area.
They had no luxuries like the Thai-French woman who was able to, according to media reports, use fitness facilities.
I am curious about the first arrivals of the 41 Chinese tourists from Shanghai, with special tourist visas (STVs) on Oct 20. The group will stay in the country for 30 days and their main destination is a seaside province.
The second batch of over 100 from Guangzhou will soon follow suit.
I mention this because a news clip featuring the arrival of Chinese tourists showed some of the tourist officials who received them -- like the newshounds who reported the story -- only wearing face masks. Few wore a hazmat suit or protective gear.
The authorities may justify this by saying that these long-stay tourists are coming from a country that is no longer high risk, but we can't assume that they are all virus-free.
I hope the health authorities will wrap up the probe of the three infections soon, so that we will know what to do or how to rectify this. I don't want to sound like I'm in a panic, but I expect a full probe. The story should not just fade away, like the case of the infected DJ, where the authorities didn't manage to trace anything.
As an observer, I suspect the ASQ's standards. ASQ packages range from somewhere between 30,000 baht to more than 100,000 baht, depending on the hotel and location. How can we be sure the same standards and strict guidelines are applied in all ASQ facilities? With the return of inbound tourists and expats, ASQ facility owners shouldn't be allowed to spoil their customers and ignore guidelines.
After months of lockdown that left millions penniless, we can't afford a second wave.
Sirinya Wattanasukchai is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.