HANOI -- Vietnam has been hailed as a success story for its ability to stay relatively coronavirus-free as the rest of the world struggles with the insidious disease, but a handful of new cases in the country's two largest cities has officials scrambling to prevent a potential new wave.
The country was on high alert Thursday as the capital, Hanoi in the north, and Ho Chi Minh City, the southern commercial hub, both detected locally transmitted COVID-19 patients the day before.
Nguyen Duc Chung, chairman of Hanoi People's Committee, ordered bars to temporarily close and banned large gatherings, including festivals and fairs, effective Wednesday.
The move was made after the city confirmed its first new coronavirus patient in three months, along with 87 suspected cases in people displaying a cough and fever as symptoms.
Hanoi expects to carry out rapid testing on 21,000 people who have returned to the capital from Danang, now the country's coronavirus epicenter, by Saturday. Those returning from Danang will be required to fill out a health questionnaire and self-quarantine.
In an urgent meeting Wednesday, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc warned that "every province and city" was at high risk of coronavirus infections, and asked authorities to "act more swiftly and more fiercely in order to control the outbreak." He stressed that the new wave "appears to be different" to that seen in Vietnam earlier this year.
Meanwhile in the nation's south, Ho Chi Minh City confirmed two new cases, along with another case in Dak Lak Province. The people involved in those cases all traveled to Danang recently.
The new cases are a potential setback for Vietnam, which has been praised for its fight against the coronavirus. Despite having one of the largest populations in the region with more than 97 million people, it has reported zero deaths and 459 cases as of Thursday, a relatively small number.
Despite the warnings in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, there are no immediate plans to enforce social distancing measures, said Mai Tien Dung, the minister and chairman of the Office of the Government.
"Tightened protection measures should be strictly followed, and authorities must closely monitor people who come back from Danang, and quickly isolate zones if any new cases are detected," Dung said.
Danang would be placed on "strict lockdown," health authorities said Wednesday, with all flights to and from the central city suspended for at least 15 days. More than 43 confirmed cases have been recorded there.
This month, acting health minister Nguyen Thanh Long warned that illegal immigrants from neighboring countries could be a dangerous source of coronavirus cases, and suggested tightening borders, especially to the north. "The risk of an epidemic entering Vietnam is still high, especially the increasing situation of illegal border crossing" and people not quarantining, Long said.
Vietnam's border authorities said Sunday that more than 4,000 people had been arrested in the past two months for entering the country illegally.
There have also been recent reports of more than 100 Chinese citizens found to be staying illegally in the country. Authorities also arrested and prosecuted organizers who brought foreigners to Vietnam by bypassing the country's COVID-19 protection measures.
Dr. Nguyen Van Kinh, the chief of the country's infectious disease agency, told local media that the new strain of coronavirus in Danang is more contagious than older strain, but was not more deadly. He said the coronavirus has continuously been changing while it is spreading throughout the world. Currently, 99 strains are detected, and six different strains have been recorded in Vietnam.
Understanding the speed of transmission and virulence of the new strain will help to prevent the spread of the disease effectively, Kinh said.
"We have had experiences to deal with matter during the early outbreak period. If we trace and isolate effected areas, and people follow distance measures, wear masks, the situation will gradually be controlled," Kinh said.
The Health system in Vietnam is fragile and the country may struggle to handle an explosion of COVID-19, according to a political analyst who declined to be named. Hanoi remains on high alert because it needs to avoid the spread of the coronavirus until next January," he said, referring to scheduled voting for key Communist Party, National Assembly and government posts.