BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The health ministry is preparing to double its COVID-19 vaccinations to 10,000 jabs a day as the number of confirmed cases continued to pile up with 49 locally transmitted infections on Thursday.

Giving an update on the COVID-19 situation in Brunei, Health Minister YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Mohammad Isham Hj Jaafar said three new clusters have been identified – Dragon Boat rowing team cluster (six cases), Champion 7 offshore oil field cluster (three cases) and a cluster of three cases linked to Patient 499.

Chung Hua Middle School Kuala Belait remains the largest active cluster with a total of 83 infections after adding 21 new cases.

The Authority for Building Control and Construction Industry (ABCi) cluster grew to 12 cases as four more infections were reported.

Three cases were linked to the Department of Immigration and National Registration cluster, bringing its total to seven.

Both the Semporna Enak workers’ quarters and oil firm TOTAL clusters recorded two new cases each, taking their total to 19 and 16 infections, respectively.

Five of the new cases are still being investigated to determine the source of infection.

Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

The minister said a couple are critically ill and tested positive for COVID-19 after seeking emergency treatment for breathing difficulties on Wednesday night.

Another two cases are under close observation.

Second Minister of Finance and Economy YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Mohd Amin Liew Abdullah also confirmed that an employee at the ministry’s Treasury Department contracted the coronavirus, prompting the ministry to disinfect its premises.

Big jump in cases stretches healthcare system

There are now 218 active cases being treated at the National Isolation Centre (NIC), occupying 73 percent of the available beds.

Once the NIC reaches full capacity, MoH will transfer asymptomatic patients or those with mild symptoms to a makeshift facility.

The ministry is considering setting up the temporary treatment centre at the “National Service Programme (PKBN) area”.

The sharp rise in number of cases – 204 over the past six days — has started to put a strain on the healthcare system, requiring the health ministry to make workforce changes to better manage its most serious outbreak yet.

Doctors and nurses have been redeployed to COVID-19 swab test centres, the NIC in Tutong and vaccination centres.

The minister also called on retired and private healthcare professionals to help the ministry curb the spread of COVID-19 as volunteers. Those who wish to become health volunteers can contact 7455109.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said his ministry is better prepared to handle the second wave of infections, but “did not expect the cases to rise rapidly”.

“We only have about 600 doctors, so all hands on deck. It’s a bit trying because they now have to do something different.

“It’s 24/7 now, so it’s quite challenging. But together, we can do it,” he added.

The minister also acknowledged shortcomings in COVID-19 testing and vaccination as some people had to wait five to six hours to get a swab test.

A patient waits for her turn to take the swab test for coronavirus at Berakas Health Centre on June 24, 2020. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

MoH seeks to speed up testing and vaccinations

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said more health volunteers are needed to accelerate the vaccination rate as it is one of the ways to alleviate the burden of COVID-19.

“The more [health volunteers], the better. We want to double the vaccinations from about 5,000 a day to 10,000 a day,” he said.

To date, 34.2 percent of the population have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

In response to a question on whether Brunei has enough vaccines to meet the increased demand, the minister said Oxford-Astrazeneca jabs are still available and more vaccines will be arriving in the near future.

MoH has procured 300,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine, which is expected to be delivered by the end of 2021.

The ministry also plans to increase the number of swab test centres and is assessing the feasibility of two potential drive-thru testing sites.

“We still have to consider where to do it to ensure it doesn’t disrupt road safety.

“It’s not just a matter of preparing a place, but also the workforce. They need to be trained, especially with the use of PPE,” he added.

While the number of swabbers has increased, the minister said they are all required to pass a test on wearing personal protective equipment [PPE].

“It’s not something simple. Not everyone passes the test, so it’s challenging to find someone suitable to conduct the swab tests,” he continued.

Outbound travellers who need to get tested before boarding their flight may experience delays in getting their results as more tests are being administered due to the surge in cases, the minister said.

The 148 Health Advice Line operators handles hundreds of calls each day. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

148 Health Advice Line sees spike in calls

The 148 Health Advice Line will add more phone lines from seven to 20 soon, in a bid to better handle the rising number of calls, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said.

He said the hotline has been kept busy with 400 to 600 calls and 5,000 to 6,000 WhatsApp messages each day since the second wave of infections started.

“In the past four days, it was [operating] 24 hours. We added more people to [handle] the hotline 24/7 but it’s still not enough. People are still complaining because of the unanswered calls,” he added.