BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei has shortened the isolation period for primary close contacts of COVID-19 cases to five days, Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar announced Saturday.

Close contacts were previously allowed to leave isolation after 10 days.

Under revised health protocols, people who came into close contact with positive COVID cases will no longer be ordered to immediately undergo polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

Primary close contacts will instead be required to perform an antigen rapid test (ART) and proceed to a swab centre for PCR testing only if they show a positive ART result, the minister told reporters at the COVID press briefing.

Positive cases who are allowed to isolate at home must also report their daily health status on the BruHealth app for the Ministry of Health to monitor their condition.

Failure to comply with the directive might result in the individual transferred to a government-designated isolation facility.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said further changes to health guidelines are likely as authorities are studying the possibility of exempting frontline workers from self-isolation despite being identified as secondary close contacts.

He added that frontliners who are secondary close contacts may be required to take antigen tests every day if they are allowed to continue working.

“We want to decrease PCR testing because ART was found to be effective in detecting the Omicron variant,” he said.

The change in health protocols comes in the wake of a sharp rise in new coronavirus infections, less than a week after the government confirmed the first community cases of the highly infectious Omicron.

Brunei logged 373 new COVID cases on Saturday, the highest daily tally since October 17 when the sultanate chalked up a record number of infections at 504 in a day. The majority of the cases (368) were local transmissions.

Saturday’s coronavirus case count is also more than double the 140 infections recorded a day earlier.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said the rapid growth in cases was “most likely” fuelled by the Omicron variant.

“Even though the symptoms of Omicron are mild, it might not be the case for unvaccinated individuals.

“The most important thing is to get vaccinated and comply with [health guidelines]. Stay at home if it’s not an essential outing,” he added.

The ministry has been pushing Brunei residents to get COVID booster jabs, but the uptake of third vaccine doses has slowed in recent weeks.

As of Friday, 41.6 percent of the population has received booster shots, while 94% has taken two doses.

While new infections have surged in the past week, the bed occupancy rate remains stable at 18.6 percent and no patients are being treated in the intensive care unit.

The number of active cases has also crossed the 1,000-mark for the first time since November 7.

Education minister YB Dato Hj Hamzah. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

MoE raises kindergarten attendance capacity to 80%

Appearing alongside the health minister at the news conference, Education Minister YB Dato Hj Hamzah Hj Sulaiman said kindergartens will be permitted to operate at 80 percent capacity from February 7.

Kindergartens welcomed back preschoolers aged 3 to 4 last month, with attendance capped at 30 percent.

In response to a reporter’s question on public concerns that more unvaccinated children can return to pre-schools, the education minister said the maximum capacity of 80% applies to kindergartens that are well-prepared.

Toddlers who cannot attend in-person classes will continue with online lessons.

Preschoolers are required to undergo antigen tests at kindergartens once a week, but ART can be performed at home from February 14.

Year 11-13 students to perform self-tests at home from next week

YB Dato Hj Hamzah further said Year 11-13 students will start taking self-tests at home once a week from February 7.

This means that these students will no longer perform antigen tests at schools, which was a requirement when students resumed face-to-face classes in January after a four-month school closure.

The minister said lower-year pupils will conduct antigen tests at home beginning February 14.

“They will need to report their results on an online form with their parents’ confirmation. After taking the test, students should also stay at home until they go to school the next day,” he continued.

Students will be given two ART kits every week, in case the first test showed invalid results.

Explaining guidelines for students performing ART at home, the minister said students should take a PCR test at the nearest flu clinic if their antigen test returned positive or twice-invalid results.