BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei reported 17 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, a day after detecting its first local cases in more than a year and reinstating public health control measures to curb the outbreak.

Fifteen of the cases were locally acquired, while two were imported infections from Manila.

Brunei’s COVID-19 tally has risen to 364 cases since the country recorded its first case in March last year.

During a press briefing on Sunday, health minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said 12 of the new cases belong to three active clusters — Al-Falah School, oil firm TOTAL and Star Lodge hotel.

Seven of the new infections were linked to the TOTAL cluster, involving five colleagues of Patient 345, his wife and sister.

The Al-Falah cluster expanded with five new cases on Sunday, including three children aged six and eight.

The ministry is still investigating the source of three new local infections, and Patients 346 and 345 — who tested positive on Saturday — could not be linked to any of the clusters.

All three new infections with unknown source — Patients 362 to 364 — do not have a travel history.

Two of them are teenagers aged 13 and 16, and the other is a 43-year-old woman.

To date, more than 1,000 close contacts have been identified among the three clusters, and were issued with a quarantine order since Saturday.

Security staff at the new extension of the National Isolation Centre in April 2020. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Worrying increase in case numbers

The minister said the growing caseload is worrying because patients are filling up the National Isolation Centre (NIC) in Tutong in a short time.

There are 67 active cases being treated at the NIC, which has 296 beds.

“It is quite worrying because in a short period of time, we are filling the space quite quickly, so hopefully we can control this within these two weeks,” he said.

Any members of the public who have developed signs of infection, especially those who may have been exposed to any of the clusters are urged to seek treatment and undergo coronavirus tests as soon as possible at any swabbing centre.

The swabbing centres include Raja Isteri Pengiran Anak Saleha Hospital’s Sports Complex, Suri Seri Begawan Hospital’s SARI Centre, Berakas Health Centre, Pengkalan Batu Health Centre and Seria Health Centre.

The minister said anyone who has been to the Star Lodge hotel in Jerudong from July 27 to August 7 should get tested for the coronavirus.

The hotel, which was a health monitoring centre for inbound travellers, is now “on lockdown”. 

“We know that the weakest chain is mainly smuggling routes and frontliners from the airport to hotels.

“We have strengthened our SOP recently, especially [taking] lessons from neighbouring countries especially at the airport and hotels. Unfortunately, it still happened. Now we’re monitoring it more closely and we’re putting more people to ensure strict [compliance of] SOP,” he added.

A customer wears a protective face mask while browsing for items at Kianggeh Market in June 2020. Photo: Yusri Adanan/The Scoop

More serious than first wave of infections

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said it is more important now for everyone to adhere to the government’s health guidelines.

The government will issue a $100 compound fine against any individual who failed to wear protective face masks in public.

“Compared to the last time, we don’t know the sources of many cases this time. There are a few clusters with unknown sources, so from a public health [viewpoint], there is community spread already. That’s why we insist on wearing masks and scanning the QR code.

“This is not like the last time, this is even more serious, especially more so if it’s the Delta variant,” he added.

The ministry is still awaiting sample results from overseas to determine the COVID-19 variant in the new cases, which can take months.

“To be honest, we wouldn’t be surprised if it’s the Delta [strain] because there are many cases of the variant around the world,” the minister said.

BruHealth app to issue SMS alerts for mandatory testing

To improve contact tracing, the health ministry will also introduce short message notification via the BruHealth app to anyone who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Individuals who received the notification are required to visit the nearest swabbing centre for testing, said the minister.

Members of the public who rarely use the BruHealth app are advised to activate the app and scan the QR code upon entry and leaving premises.

The BruHealth app will send SMS alerts to close contacts of COVID-19 cases for mandatory testing.

No immediate plans to make vaccination mandatory

The health minister said there are no plans to make vaccination mandatory yet despite a provision under Chapter 48 of the Infectious Diseases Act that grants the government power to direct mandatory vaccination of person in certain cases.

COVID-19 vaccinations are mandatory for frontline workers.

Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham hoped the rising number of cases would prompt members of the public to get their COVID-19 jab.

The health ministry will also authorise the sale of COVID-19 self-test kits at private clinics and pharmacies soon. 

Booster vaccine

Asked whether the ministry is considering COVID-19 vaccine booster shots for the public, Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said the technical committee is still evaluating the need for a third COVID-19 vaccine dose and studying the results of other countries that have implemented such measures.

“So far, WHO has not recommended [giving] booster shots, although there are a few countries that are currently doing it,” he said.

The minister added that there is also a need to assess who is in need of a booster shot.

“It is not routinely done, and I do not think it should be routinely given [due to the potential health risks],” he said, adding that too many doses might trigger an autoimmune reaction.