HANOI -- Vietnam wants Ho Chi Minh City and nearby provinces to take more aggressive measures against a wave of coronavirus infections sweeping the country's southern commercial hub.
The central government in Hanoi sent a document to authorities in those regions Wednesday, calling for actions including lockdowns to stop the spread of COVID-19. The country, which stood out for its containment of the virus in the early months of the pandemic, is now struggling to control the situation amid vaccine shortages.
"The pandemic in Ho Chi Minh City is complicated, and the number of new infections is increasing rapidly," says the document, which lays out directives from Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. "More drastic and stronger solutions are needed."
Chinh acknowledged that restrictions could harm business and disrupt supply chains, but he said that "when needed, especially now, people's lives and health must be prioritized."
Vietnam's government reported 1,007 new cases nationwide Wednesday, but Ho Chi Minh City said separately at 6 p.m. that day it had confirmed 1,693 infections in the previous 24 hours. Total COVID-19 cases in the city since April 27, when the current wave hit the country, reached 7,385 on Wednesday.
Ho Chi Minh City's Export Processing and Industrial Zones Authority reported that around 800 new cases were detected at 38 companies in export and industrial parks as of Tuesday. The city authority manages 14 active industrial-export parks, which house more than 1,000 businesses and around 274,000 workers.
The city also has two high-tech parks, Quang Trung Software City and Saigon Hi-Tech Park, housing over 300 companies and organizations with 66,000 workers. Nidec Sankyo, a manufacturer in Saigon Hi-Tech Park, reported 238 infections among workers as of Monday. As of July 1, around 20,000 employees citywide had to suspend work, according to authorities.
"Ho Chi Minh City and nearby regions are under tension, and the number of new cases is expected to further increase in the following days," Truong Huu Khanh, former head of the infectious diseases department at Children's Hospital 1 in the city, told Nikkei Asia.
Vietnam launched a vaccine fund on June 5 to raise $1.1 billion toward securing doses for 70% of the population by early next year. But the inoculation drive is proceeding slowly. As of Wednesday, less than 4% of the population had received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to Our World in Data.
The first batch of 97,000 Pfizer vaccine doses landed in Vietnam on Wednesday, part of the 31 million that the government ordered directly from Pfizer. About 2 million Moderna doses are set to arrive in Hanoi from Washington by the weekend, according to the Ministry of Health.
"Vietnam still has to wait for smooth vaccine delivery until September," Khanh said. "Factories in the city have to prepare accommodations to quarantine their workers within their facilities if outbreaks happen within their premises."
The spike in cases led Vietnam to order Ho Chi Minh City to carry out 5 million tests in 10 days, between June 26 and July 5, a push that overwhelmed some testing sites and sparked fears of further COVID-19 transmissions.
Ho Chi Minh City's health care system is becoming overloaded by the sharp rise in cases, experts warn. Communities have set up field hospitals and converted two more hospitals for treatment of COVID-19 patients, enhancing capacity to 10,000 beds across the city.
The rising caseload and death toll have focused resources on COVID-19 treatment, straining disease prevention efforts, emergency care physician Pham Thang told Nikkei.
Districts in Ho Chi Minh City tightened precautions Tuesday to enact social distancing. The operation of some wholesale and traditional markets was suspended after new cases were detected at these sites, but the public responded by rushing to supermarkets and hoarding food in anticipation of tougher measures.
Though Chinh told Ho Chi Minh City to take stronger actions, the prime minister also stressed prudence and caution. He urged the economic hub to consider priorities, given that strong anti-pandemic measures will interrupt production and supply chains tied to the factories and industrial parks.
Chinh told local authorities, including those in Ho Chi Minh City, to avoid falling back on any of three stances.
"Do not say lack of funds, means, medical supplies, biological products," he began. "Do not say lack of human resources [and] do not say lack of regulations and mechanisms and policies."
Additional reporting by Kim Dung Tong in Ho Chi Minh City.