BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – For the third straight day, Brunei shattered its record for daily new COVID-19 cases after detecting 1,125 infections on Saturday.

Nearly one in five people tested positive for the coronavirus in the past 24 hours, data from the Ministry of Health (MoH) showed.

Fuelled by the fast-spreading Omicron variant, the number of active cases also hit a record high of 4,586 but the vast majority (99.8%) of the cases were either asymptomatic or experience mild symptoms.

Despite the rapid escalation in COVID infections, the bed occupancy rate declined to 27.4 percent as 3,936 positive cases were allowed to isolate at home.

Speaking at the COVID-19 press briefing, Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said the ministry has revised home isolation guidelines, where positive cases are no longer required to isolate in an ensuite bedroom.

People infected with the coronavirus can share a toilet and bathroom with household members as long as they clean and disinfect surfaces and items after use.

However, the minister said positive cases will still be brought to isolation centres if there are other issues that prevent them from isolating at home.

‘MoH can expand COVID testing beyond 10,000 a day’

Responding to a reporter’s question on COVID testing capacity following long queues at the drive-thru swab centre in BRIDEX, YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham acknowledged that long lines were already formed even before the testing facility opened.

He said healthcare workers were also caught in traffic, which further contributed to testing bottlenecks.

“Our testing capacity is still the same. We can easily do 6,000 to 8,000 [PCR] tests a day, and can add beyond 10,000 tests if needed, but it’s enough for now,” he added.

On average, 5,976 PCR tests were administered over the past three days.

With coronavirus infections projected to show an upward trend until end of February, the ministry has also redeployed healthcare workers to deal with the surge in cases.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said the healthcare system is being stretched thin from the high COVID caseload, resulting in limited access to healthcare services such as dental care and specialist clinics.

The government currently has no plans to re-impose stringent COVID rules as Brunei is treating the coronavirus as an endemic disease since 94.1 percent of the population is double-vaccinated.

“The high vaccination rate and the low number of [ICU] cases in the country is in line with findings from scientific studies that have been conducted worldwide,” the minister said.

Graphic: Ministry of Health

In a change to the reporting of COVID-19 cases, MoH announced the number of patients in intensive care before reporting figures of new infections as part of its endemic COVID strategy.

Three people with pre-existing health conditions were warded in the ICU on Saturday.

Seniors and individuals with chronic illnesses were encouraged to get a top-up vaccine, with studies indicating that booster jabs offer improved protection against COVID.

In recent weeks, Brunei has been seeing a slow uptake in booster shots. As of Friday, 45.1 percent of the population is triple-vaccinated.

No significant rise in COVID cases at schools

Earlier in the week, the education ministry revealed that 200 students from 106 schools tested positive for COVID-19 between January 31 and February 7, but that they were infected by household members and not in the school setting.

Asked whether the government is considering shutting schools and return to virtual learning, the health minister said so far no school clusters have been reported in the third wave of infections.

Based on MoH’s definition, a cluster occurs when three or more people were infected by a person in a specific location.

“The number of positive cases who attended [in-person classes] is about 0.5 percent. We also found that 0.5 percent of students who are doing home-based learning tested positive.

“So what can we learn from this? This showed that students who go to school did not cause a significant rise in cases,” YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham continued.

Since January, kindergarten pupils and vaccinated students aged 12 and above have been allowed to return to schools, although primary school learning remains online.