BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei will not immediately enter the endemic phase of its COVID-19 recovery plan once it hits the 80 percent vaccination target, the health minister said at a press briefing on Wednesday.

Explaining the decision to delay moving to the endemic phase, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said the government “needs more time” to prepare for a future with endemic COVID.

The country initially planned to treat the coronavirus as endemic once its inoculation rate reaches 80 percent but health authorities said Brunei will achieve the vaccination milestone earlier than anticipated.

Some 93.4 percent of the population has taken at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, while 78.3 percent has taken the full two-dose regimen, according to health ministry figures.

The minister’s announcement comes less than a week after the sultanate ushered in the transition phase, which saw the easing of COVID movement curbs for fully vaccinated people.

While he did not specify a time frame, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said the endemic phase will start “soon”.

During the endemic phase, residents are expected to co-exist with the coronavirus and borders will finally open after a 20-month closure. However, the government plans to keep the mask mandate and other physical distancing measures.

A recent study found that the wearing of face masks cuts the risk of COVID transmissions by 53 percent, making it the single most effective public health measure at tackling the virus.

COVID-19 reproduction number remains below 1

Brunei has been reporting fewer new COVID infections over the past three weeks as the vaccination coverage continued to rise.

The reproduction number (R0) – a metric used to study the transmissibility of a disease at a given time – has stayed under 1 in the past two weeks, YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said.

“It is at 0.8 now, so InshaAllah, we can [continue to] contain the spread of COVID if the public follow all health guidelines,” he added.

Source: Ministry of Health | Graphic: Dr Wee Chian Koh

An outbreak is said to be brought under control when the R0 is less than 1.

Brunei recorded a R0 value of 5 during the beginning of the second wave. This means that one positive case spreads the virus to five other people.

The higher vaccination rate has also translated to lower number of intensive care patients and deaths in the last three weeks.

There were five to six ICU patients since November 15, compared to the daily peak of 46 on September 27.

Source: Ministry of Health | Graphic: Dr Wee Chian Koh

The sultanate reported its deadliest week with 12 COVID-related deaths from September 20-26, while no deaths were recorded last week.

Today’s coronavirus numbers

On Wednesday, the health ministry said a 64-year-old COVID patient had died but his death was not attributed to the coronavirus as he had underlying health issues.

The official death toll stands at 57.

A total of 70 new coronavirus cases were confirmed in the past 24 hours, raising the cumulative infections to 14,771.

Three new clusters have emerged, including Jerudong Market, Borneo Air Conditioning & Engineering staff house and a private household cluster.

There were more positive cases from private household clusters (198) than migrant worker dormitories (126) over the past five days, data from the health ministry showed.