BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — The government has extended COVID-19 restrictions for another two weeks to help slow the rising number of coronavirus cases.

Announcing the continuation of coronavirus curbs in a press briefing, Health Minister YB Dato Seri Setia Dr Hj Mohammad Isham Hj Jaafar said public health control measures will remain until September 4 as the COVID-19 situation has not stabilised yet.

Brunei reimposed coronavirus restrictions two weeks ago after reporting its first cases of community transmission in 15 months, including mandating the use of masks in public spaces and shutting schools.

Two days after reinstating COVID-19 safety protocols, the government sent the country into a partial lockdown as infections reached a record high.

A total of 1,116 coronavirus cases have been confirmed since the second wave began, more than 10 times higher than last year.

Given the steep rise in COVID-19 cases over the past two weeks, the minister said there is a “big possibility” that the fast-spreading Delta variant is in Brunei.

The ministry is still awaiting genome sequencing test results from overseas to confirm the specific COVID-19 strain.

The Delta variant — reported to be more than twice as infectious as previous strains — has driven a surge in coronavirus cases across the world.

MoH: Not everything went to plan in combating second wave

Asked whether the health ministry was prepared to deal with the scale and speed of the second wave, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said his ministry had anticipated the arrival of a second wave but not the severity of the outbreak.

“MoH stayed vigilant when we had 457 days without community spread,” he said, adding that the ministry was always concerned with the possibility of new local transmissions as COVID-19 was still spreading in neighbouring countries.

“We always anticipate because smuggling is still prevalent. However, it’s not just smuggling but people [illegally] coming in and going out of the country. That has always been our weakest chain, which can trigger an outbreak,” he continued.

The minister said anyone who has information of people suspected of illegally crossing borders should report to the authorities.

“Some people have been requesting for a [full] lockdown, but even if we have a lockdown, people are still illegally entering and leaving the country, so there’s no point,” he added.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said preparations were made to anticipate another COVID-19 outbreak, including procuring personal protective equipment and building a new wing at the National Isolation Centre (NIC) in Tutong.

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

However, the minister acknowledged that not everything went according to plan.

“When we received the vaccine earlier, frontliners were [given priority] before the vaccine was offered to teachers in the second phase.

“Unfortunately, not many came forward and I’ve mentioned before that only 60 percent [of frontliners] took the vaccine. But everyone is rushing to get vaccinated now,” he said.

The government has made it mandatory for all frontline workers to get inoculated following the slow vaccine uptake.

Since the vaccine rollout began in April, 39.9 percent of the population have received at least one vaccine dose.

Only 14.4 percent of residents are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

122 new cases confirmed

Brunei reported 122 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, bringing the number of active cases to 1,096.

It is not known how many of the new cases were confirmed from a backlog of tests.

The health ministry is still clearing three days’ worth of pending COVID-19 tests, and expects the processing of swab samples to improve with the new mobile testing lab at BRIDEX.

The majority of the new cases (79) have not been linked to any of the active clusters yet.

Among the new cases, 11 have been linked to the Champion 7 oil field and related vessels cluster, which has a total of 203 infections.

The Brunei Shell Petroleum headquarters and Institute of Brunei Technical Education Kuala Belait clusters added eight new cases each, taking their respective total to 41 and 19.

Chung Hua Middle School Kuala Belait remained the largest active cluster with seven new infections, while Cluster 583 reported three more cases.

The ministry has also identified a new cluster of four cases linked to Patient 1385.

Another two new cases were imported from United Kingdom and Manila.

The Ma’had Islam Brunei Arabic School in Tutong will be turned into a makeshift isolation facility for COVID-19 patients with mild symptoms.

MoH mulls home isolation for mild cases

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said his ministry is considering home isolation for asymptomatic and mild COVID-19 patients as beds are expected to fill up at two makeshift facilities at the National Service Programme (PKBN) training camp and Mahad Islam Brunei.

Noting that home isolation is practiced in other countries, he said the ministry is still trying to transfer positive cases to healthcare facilities because it is not ideal to isolate at home with large families.

The ministry is currently prioritising patients with severe symptoms to be admitted to the National Isolation Centre for treatment.

“More people have been admitted to ICU, our procedures keep changing based on the situation,” he said, adding that the ministry is searching for other premises that can accommodate more COVID-19 patients.

Twenty-five coronavirus patients are receiving treatment at the NIC’s Intensive Care Unit, including three who are critically ill.