Taiwan faces largest COVID-19 outbreak yet

Taiwan, which was living mostly without COVID-19, is now facing its worst outbreak since the pandemic began, with more than 11,000 new cases reported Thursday.

Cases have been on the rise since late March. In April, the island’s central authorities announced that they would no longer maintain a “zero-COVID” policy like that of the Chinese government, in which they would centrally quarantine positive cases.

Instead, the government is asking people to quarantine at home if they test positive, unless they have moderate to severe symptoms.

Chen Shih-chung, the island’s health minister, announced on Thursday that it had found 11,353 new cases, as well as two deaths. At the daily press conference held by the Central Epidemic Command Center, he said 99.7 percent of cases in the current outbreak had no or mild symptoms.

Most of Taiwan’s 858 COVID-19 deaths have occurred in the summer of 2021. Until this month, it was the island’s only major outbreak in the pandemic.

Strict border policy

Taiwan has been relatively lucky throughout the pandemic, but has also maintained tight border controls with a two-week quarantine on arrival required for all visitors.

At the national level, wearing a mask is universal both outdoors and indoors. Masks are legally required on public transport and in places like shops and theaters.

People take off their masks to eat ice cream in Taipei, Taiwan on April 28. Taiwan, Taiwan is facing its worst outbreak of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. (Chiang Ying-ying/Associated Press)

In recent weeks, as cases surged, people rushed to buy rapid tests, with stores selling out in just hours.

The difficulty in purchasing rapid tests is likely partly due to government thinking throughout the pandemic that mass testing is of little benefit. Last year, the health minister said public funds and medical resources could be better spent elsewhere.

That changed with last year’s outbreak.

Trial limits

The central government said this month it would work with Taiwanese companies that manufacture the tests to ensure everyone has access to them. A system was rolled out on Thursday that limits each person to buying one pack of five tests per shopping trip. Each purchase must be linked to an individual’s national ID card to ensure there is no storage.

Experts worry about the five million people who have not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Those who did not complete a full vaccination course are four times more likely to have moderate or severe symptoms than those who received a booster, said Ho Mei-Shang, a vaccine expert in Taiwan who has also worked for the Centers for US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the Central News Agency.

Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable to Taiwan’s epidemic this time around. The vaccination rate among people over 75 is 72.5%. However, only 59.1% in the same age group received a booster.

Wang Zi-yu, 78, said he overcame his hesitation and received three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I thought not getting the vaccine was worse. At first with the AstraZeneca vaccine, I was worried,” she said, referring to concerns the vaccine could cause a rare blood clot. “And then later I got the Moderna shot and had no negative reaction. It was good.”

Shots for under 12s

The younger members of society are not protected either. Some schools have reverted to remote learning based on the number of positive cases reported by each school. The island opens vaccines for children aged 6 to 11 next week.

A two-year-old boy in New Taipei City died last week, Taiwan’s youngest victim of COVID-19. His condition deteriorated rapidly after testing positive.

Still, officials urged the public not to panic, saying Taiwan was better prepared with vaccines and ways to ensure moderate and severe cases would receive prompt attention.

“We want to say to the public, from the medical world, rest assured,” said Chiu Tai-yuan, a lawmaker who also heads the Taiwan Medical Association. “Last year’s epidemic situation is not like the one we are facing today.”