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Taiwan's coronavirus spike: What went wrong?

Hotel cluster threatens success story as island logs 415 cases in three days

Soldiers wait to disinfect Taipei's Wanhua district, which has seen a concentration of coronavirus cases, on May 16.   © Reuters

TAIPEI -- A jump in local transmissions of COVID-19 in Taiwan has raised questions of what went wrong on an island that has been widely praised as a pandemic success story.

Taiwan reported 29 local cases on Friday, 180 on Saturday and 206 on Sunday. The numbers are low compared to those of many countries, but they are a huge blow to Taiwan, which has boosted its international profile thanks to its deft control of the virus.

Before Friday, it had recorded a total of just 135 local infections.

At least some of the clusters are linked to an outbreak that emerged in April at the Novotel hotel at Taoyuan International Airport. The new cases are mostly in the Greater Taipei area, which neighbors the city of Taoyuan, where the airport is. A few cases have been confirmed in other parts of the north as well as central Taiwan.

In mid-April, Taiwan relaxed the quarantine requirements for non-vaccinated pilots and other crew members from five days to three. At the same time, it said vaccinated crew members on Taiwanese airlines no longer had to quarantine.

The Novotel was later found to have put some quarantining pilots and flight crews in the same building as ordinary guests. While Taiwan remains closed to foreign tourists, the hotel had been running a promotion for domestic tourists to boost occupancy rates.

The first cases linked to the Novotel were confirmed on April 20 -- two pilots at Taiwan's largest carrier, China Airlines. The pair had flown a cargo flight together to the U.S. Other China Airlines pilots later tested positive, some of whom had gone to bars and restaurants before being confirmed as having the virus. A hotel housekeeping manager also caught it.

By May 7, there were 29 known cases -- 11 pilots, one flight attendant, six Novotel staff, and 11 family members. On that day, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung announced that the Civil Aeronautics Administration had fined China Airlines 1 million New Taiwan dollars ($35,000) for failing to comply with the government's coronavirus prevention measures by allowing crew members to stay in a non-quarantine facility.

While one of the Novotel's buildings had been designated as a quarantine facility, it had put some pilots and crew members in a second building, which was not.

A day later, the Novotel was fined NT$1.27 million by the Taoyuan City Government's public health department. That was on top of a NT$150,000 fine by the transport ministry's tourism bureau for hosting quarantining flight crews in a hotel area that was not designated for that purpose.

Two China Airlines pilots who had flown a cargo flight to the U.S. were the first cases linked to the Novotel.   © Reuters

Yang Sen Hong, a UC Berkeley-trained public health expert in Taiwan, said that China Airlines and the Novotel had failed to follow the rules, and that the government-set quarantine for pilots "was too short."

The government allowed pilots to have a short quarantine without requiring them to get vaccinated, said Yang. "But if they didn't have any vaccination, on what grounds can they grant them that kind of treatment?"

While many governments have granted shorter isolation periods for pilots, "in Taiwan the situation is not the same because we locked down" our borders, and there is a risk of infected pilots spreading the virus, he said.

"The Novotel kept those pilots where they could mingle with other people, that is the problem. Then you have short quarantine and infected pilots fooling around there, so you have the leakage, you have the situation now."

According to a Friday news release from the Taoyuan city government, a member or members of the public reported back in February that the Novotel was being "used illegally." A councilor from the opposition Kuomintang party asked why it had taken so long to fine the hotel. The city's tourism department director, Yang Sheng-pin, responded that "some things needed to be further clarified," adding that it was for the hotel to show "good management," according to the release.

Following Saturday's jump in cases, the Central Epidemic Command Center raised the alert level in Taipei and New Taipei City to three on a four-level scale. This means that people must wear masks outdoors or face fines of up to NT$15,000. Outdoor gatherings of 10 or more people and indoor gatherings of five or more, unless they live under the same roof, are not allowed, with fines of up to NT$300,000.

Cinemas, sports centers, libraries and entertainment venues must close, while restaurants can continue operating if they set up adequate social distancing measures and take people's contact details.

Taiwan would shift to level four -- a lockdown -- if there are more than 100 new cases each day for two weeks.

Over the weekend, people were heeding the government's call to stay at home as much as possible. Streets, restaurants and even parks were quiet, and metros, usually busy on weekends, had empty seats. But supermarkets were packed as people rushed to stock up on food and toilet paper. On Saturday, many supermarkets began asking customers to write down their name and number or scan a QR code and leave their details, while staff disinfected trolleys.

Shoppers in Taipei stock up on groceries after the government advised people to stay home.   © Reuters

Taiwan has struggled to get its hands on vaccines, and, until recently, there had been a low take-up rate of the first batch that arrived in March.

"The most important thing is to stay calm," said Jason Wang, director of Stanford University's Center for Policy, Outcomes and Prevention.

If the virus' spread can be limited by people wearing masks, washing hands, and limiting their movements, then there will be "sufficient capability to identify infected individuals and their close contacts to test and quarantine them," he said.

"If movements are not handled well, then there won't be enough contact tracing and testing capability; we are likely to see continued surges in new cases for the next month or so, until there is a lockdown," Wang said.

Since Friday, Taiwan has set up testing stations in affected areas for people who think they might be at risk. Yang said that as these stations are using rapid test kits rather than the PCR tests that are normally carried out, "there is a possibility that false positives were among [the recent cases]."

"If so, this makes it less likely there will be a quick spread of the virus," he said. "The next few days are a critical observation period."

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