HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – In less than a week, Vietnam has gone from carefree and proud to have overcome the COVID-19 pandemic without fatalities, to live its worst wave, with dozens of community infections and a first death recorded on Friday.
As reported by the special virus management committee, the first patient to die in Vietnam from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic is patient 428 of the 509 confirmed infections, a 70-year-old man residing in Hoi An, a tourist town close to Danang, epicenter of the new wave.
Sick with severe kidney failure, heart problems and pneumonia, he had been hospitalized since July 9 without being tested for the virus until this week.
The announcement of the death has shaken the population, who proudly showed the statistic of zero deaths from COVID-19 in a country of 96 million that was exposed to the epidemic very early due to its geographical and commercial proximity to China.
Last week, Vietnam was preparing to celebrate 100 days without community contagion, a record that was never reached by the surprising announcement last Saturday of a community contagion in Danang, a 57-year-old man who remains in critical condition.
Since then, the country has registered a total of 93 infections, with Danang in the eye of the storm for its 79 infections, two cases in the capital, Hanoi, and two others in Ho Chi Minh City, the most populous in the country.
On Friday alone, 45 positives were recorded in Danang, the highest number in a single day since the start of the epidemic, and the Ministry of Health has been forced to double efforts and send a special team of medical experts and 1,000 health workers.
The situation in the coastal city, the third-largest in the country, is especially serious because almost all infections come from three medical centers, especially its main hospital, where there have also been several positives among health workers.
With those three clinics closed to the public, local authorities have announced the urgent creation of a field hospital in a sports complex to guarantee the health care of all patients.
Isolated from the rest of the country, Danang lives its strictest confinement since the start of the pandemic, with empty streets and hundreds of closed businesses, while in the country’s two large cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the first steps are being taken to prevent outbreaks nationwide.
Authorities in both places have reinforced the use of masks, blocked and disinfected streets where infections have been suspected, closed bars and other entertainment venues and have published a list of places where the infected were before their hospital admission.
These preventive measures will be completed with massive tests to all those citizens who have been in Danang in the last month (about 40,000 in total), the obligation to remain in quarantine, and the tracking of all the contacts of those who test positive.
Contributing to this effort will be the aid of $6.2 million to Vietnam announced on Friday by the World Bank to strengthen surveillance against the virus and the capacity to analyze the new outbreak.
The trackers, whose effectiveness was key to Vietnamese success against the plague, have been baffled for a week, unable to detect the origin of the virus in a country that has officially kept all its borders closed since March 23.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc acknowledged this week that it will be impossible to find patient zero of this new wave because the virus has most likely been circulating for weeks in Danang and perhaps other parts of the country.
For some experts, the return of the virus is the result of excess relaxation among the general population, which had embraced full normality with crowded tourist centers, and also among authorities and health personnel, confident that the virus had been banished from the country.
An example of this relaxation is that of patient 449, a man of American nationality who since June 26 had passed through two Danang hospitals and one in Ho Chi Minh City with acute respiratory problems without having undergone the COVID-19 until the virus returned.
Authorities have not established a clear link between the abrupt return of the virus and illegal immigration, but since the first case was announced, there have been arrests of those involved in human trafficking network and the prime minister appealed to provincial governments to tighten border controls.
As of March 23, only Vietnamese returnees from other countries and skilled foreign workers have the right to enter the country, and all have to undergo various tests and a 15-day quarantine at army units.