Confirmed COVID-19 cases in Thailand now at 177; Bangkok schools to close for 14 days

The number of COVID-19 cases in Thailand rose to 177 over the past three days, while authorities insist the country has yet to reach Stage 3 of the pandemic. Meanwhile, universities are closing or moving classes online, Buriram has announced a provincial lockdown, and the cabinet issued a resolution on Tuesday (17 March) stating that all Bangkok Metropolitan Region educational institutions and places of entertainment are to close for 14 days.

On Sunday (15 March), the Ministry of Public Health held a press conference where it was announced that it has found 32 more confirmed cases of COVID-19.

The new patients included people who caught the virus at pubs and boxing stadiums, people who were in contact with foreigners including immigration police and Suvarnabhumi Airport staff, people who have returned from overseas, and people who came in contact with Patient 51, a restaurant owner who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Sukhum Kanchanapimai, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Public Health, said that the Ministry has always been recommending that people cancel overseas trips, but many still travel and do not self-isolate when they return, causing the virus to spread in places where large numbers of people gather. He also asked that people avoid crowded places such as pubs, restaurants, and boxing stadiums.

Suwannachai Wattanayingcharoenchai, Director of the Department of Disease Control, said that the Ministry of Public Health has already notified the Bangkok Health Department to have the locations of the spread closed and sanitized. 

In a Monday afternoon (16 March) press conference, the Ministry of Health announced 33 more cases, the largest daily jump since the outbreak began, bringing the total number of COVID-19 cases in Thailand to 147.

16 of these cases came into contact with confirmed patients and 17 were those who returned from overseas or worked closely with foreigners.

Meanwhile, 83 exchange students who returned from Italy on 15 March are in quarantine, with 77 staying at the Sattahip Naval Base and 6 being admitted to hospitals as they presented with a fever. The group will be in quarantine for 14 days.

30 more confirmed cases were later announced on Tuesday (17 March), bringing the total number of cases to 177. Of these confirmed cases, 41 have been released from hospital. So far, only one person has died.

Nevertheless, the authorities insisted that Thailand is still in Stage 2 of the pandemic – limited local transmission that can be traced to sources – and has yet to enter Stage 3, which involves community transmission in which sources cannot be traced.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said at Monday’s press conference that the criteria and definition of each stage will have to be determined by the Thai authorities themselves, and that the government will only announce that the pandemic has reached Stage 3 when (1) the virus is being spread among Thai people and the source cannot be traced, (2) a large group of people is infected, and (3) outbreaks are appearing in many locations and cannot be controlled.

Public Health Permanent Secretary Sukhum also said on Tuesday that most of the cases in Thailand happens in clusters and the source of the spread can be traced, which confirmed that Thailand is still in Stage 2 of the pandemic, but he recommended social distancing as a measure of preventing the spread of the virus. People should stay apart from each other, stop traveling to crowded places, cancel social functions, work from home, and wash their hands regularly. Anyone who is showing symptoms should wear face masks and go to a hospital.

Meanwhile, Taiwan has added Thailand to its list of countries with a Level 3 warning, alongside 19 other Asian countries, meaning that passengers traveling from Thailand to Taiwan must now undergo a 14-day quarantine.

Singapore, on the other hand, is requiring all travelers with recent travel history of ASEAN countries within the last 14 days will be given a 14-day “Stay-Home Notice” and must provide proof of the place where they will be staying for the 14 days period. Short-term visitors who are ASEAN nationals must submit health information to Singapore’s Ministry of Health before their intended date of travel. Visitors arriving “without the necessary approval, or proof of the place where they will serve the 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN), or do not meet prevailing entry requirements, will be denied entry into Singapore.”

Schools, places of entertainment to close for 14 days

As the number of confirmed cases rises, the cabinet issued a resolution on Tuesday that all schools, universities, and tutoring schools in the Bangkok Metropolitan Region (BMR) are to close from 18 – 31 March, along with places of entertainment, such as massage parlors, pubs, and theatres. Boxing stadiums, sport stadiums, and racecourses are to close until further notice.

So far, House Samyan, Major Cineplex, and SF Cinema have announced that they will be closing all of their BMR locations from 18 – 31 March.

The cabinet is also asking the public to reduce the number of activities which require a large number of people to gather in the same venue, including concerts, sport tournaments, or religious gatherings, as there is a high risk of the virus spreading in such places.

Universities closing or moving online

Prior to the release of the cabinet resolution, universities are already closing or turning to online teaching. Kasetsart University announced earlier today (16 March) that its Bangkhen campus will close from today until 22 March, and that the university already has a protocol in place to disinfect all surfaces and clean every building to prevent the spread of the disease.

Chulalongkorn University has also announced that all teaching will be moved online, as the disease is now widespread and a staff member at the Faculty of Law tested positive for COVID-19. The Faculty itself previously announced that it was closing between 16 – 22 March to disinfect and clean all surfaces of its two buildings and that it was cancelling all classes both online and in person and all other activities.

The university also announced that its staff may now work from home, and those who are at risk of contracting COVID-19 may take 14 days off without it being counted as leave.

Thammasat University announced on 15 March that, due to the spread of the virus and as the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak a global pandemic, all classes at both the Tha Prachan and Rangsit campuses will be cancelled between 16 – 22 March, and for its faculties and staff to prepare for online teaching before classes resume on 23 March.

The King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology Ladkrabang announced that teaching for the current semester must be completed by Sunday (22 March) and that any other classes that need to take place after that date can be done online. It also announced that faculties must organize their own examinations and may consider changing the examination method to reports or assignments.

The University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce announced that all classes will be moved online from tomorrow afterwards, while university offices remain open but with reduced opening hours.

Srinakharinwirot University has cancelled all classes at its Prasarnmit, Ongkharak, Sa Kaew, and Tak campuses between 17 – 22 March. Classes will resume on 23 March either online or in any other format that does not require students to attend class in person.

The Suan Sunandha Rajabhat University was closed between 13 – 16 March in order to sanitize the entire campus, while requiring all departments to switch to online teaching and to re-consider the format of their practical classes. 

Due to both the spread of COVID-19 and the worsening smog situation in Chiang Rai and other northern provinces, Mae Fah Luang University is cancelling classes from 16 March – 19 April, and is also cancelling all mid-term examinations scheduled for 23 – 28 March.

Ramkhamhaeng University and the Suranaree University of Technology are also moving their classes online, while Bangkok University is closing between 14 – 27 March to sanitize its campuses after it was found that one of its students is suspected of having contracted the virus, and is requiring all students and staff who have been in close contact with said student to “undergo the COVID-19 screening test and necessary medical treatment” and to self-quarantine for 14 days.  

After a student tested positive for COVID-19, Mahidol University closed the parts of the campus visited by the student for cleaning and sanitization, and is requiring those who came in close contact with the student to come in for testing at its Faculty of Medicine and to self-quarantine for 14 days.

The KIS International School in Bangkok has also announced on 15 March that it is implementing a 14-day school closure between 16 – 30 March, after the school was informed that a student’s parent has been in contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19. The school will switch to online teaching on 17 March and will re-open on 31 March.

Buriram becomes the first province to announce lockdown

Thatchakorn Hatthathayakul, Buriram’s Provincial Governor, using his authority under the 2015 Communicable Disease Act, has ordered a provincial lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, even though the province has no confirmed cases so far.

All people entering Buriram will now be required to go through strict screening measures and self-isolate for 14 days. They will be checked up on by authorities and volunteers, and those with fevers will be admitted to hospitals. All activities in which more than 50 people gather in one venue are also banned for the next 30 days.

Songkran holiday postponed

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu also announced during the Monday afternoon (16 March) press conference that 13 – 15 April are no longer public holidays this year, in order to stop the surge in the number of travellers as people return to their hometown during the Songkran holidays and to prevent asymptomatic carriers from taking the virus out of Bangkok and spreading it to other provinces. Crowded places such as public transportation centres or other gathering places are also considered a risk.

He also said that the government will be making up for the long holiday and new dates will be announced in advance. The Ministry of Transport have ordered all of its agencies, including the State Railway of Thailand, the Transport Company Limited, and Thai Airways to allow all passengers with bookings during the Songkran period to change their bookings or apply for a refund without any additional fee.

However, the authorities have yet to mention how the government might compensate the businesses that might be effected by any of these measures, or said businesses’ employees.

Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha also insisted during Tuesday’s press conference that these measures do not mean a national or provincial lockdown.

The national borders will remain open, but travelers from China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, Hong Kong, and Taiwan will now be required to have a medical certificate, which must not be older than 3 days, and must also consent to using an unspecified government-issued tracking application.