BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Self-administered antigen rapid tests can now be used to confirm coronavirus infections, the government announced on Monday as part of a major policy shift in COVID-19 management.

With the Omicron coronavirus variant continuing to spur record high cases, Brunei will start relying on antigen tests that promise quicker results in identifying COVID-19 cases.

Announcing the revised testing rules in a press briefing, Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said the government will not just rely on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to diagnose COVID.

The change meant that the public will no longer be required to seek a follow-up PCR test for confirmation of coronavirus infection.

However, members of the public who are not close contacts of a positive case are required to produce two positive antigen test results.

The public are urged to register their positive antigen test results on the Ministry of Health’s (MoH) website or by contacting Talian Darussalam 123.

The shift in COVID testing strategy is expected to ease the burden on PCR swabbing centres, which have been reporting long queues amid soaring case numbers in the past week.

MoH previously said antigen rapid tests are effective in detecting the Omicron variant. The health ministry has approved 49 antigen rapid test kits with high sensitivity and accuracy rates in detecting the coronavirus.

Researchers found that antigen tests were more sensitive in people with symptoms and high viral loads, with one study suggesting that rapid COVID tests successfully identified 98 percent of infections.

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

Secondary close contacts not required to self-isolate

In another change to its COVID management strategy, the health ministry said contact tracing will prioritise primary close contacts and high-risk groups.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said secondary close contacts are no longer required to undergo isolation, but should monitor their health and perform self-tests when they start showing COVID symptoms.

Fully vaccinated civil servants who have been identified as secondary close contacts will be allowed to enter their workplaces if they produce negative antigen test results and do not show any symptoms, according to guidelines issued by the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday.

Meanwhile, primary close contacts must isolate for at least five days, and produce negative antigen test results on the first and fifth day of their isolation. They will also be required to report their daily health status through the “self-assessment tool” on the BruHealth mobile app.

The health minister further said isolation centres will focus on positive cases who need medical treatment, while individuals who are asymptomatic or show mild symptoms can self-isolate at home.

More than 99 percent of active cases either did not show signs of infection or experienced mild symptoms.

Households with positive cases will be given a “health package” that contains necessities such as antigen rapid test kits, an oximeter that checks blood oxygen levels, medication and health information leaflets.

Individuals who tested positive for COVID will also receive a SMS text and their BruHealth code will turn purple.

From February 15, the Ministry of Transport and Infocommunications, E-Government National Centre and Talian Darussalam 123 operator Comquest Sdn Bhd will be involved in assessing the health status of newly confirmed positive cases; monitoring of positive cases undergoing self-isolation at home; and delivery of antigen test kits and health packages.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said wristbands will not be issued to newly-confirmed positive cases as BruHealth will now be used to prevent quarantined individuals from leaving their homes.

A test tube labelled “COVID-19 Omicron variant test positive” is seen in this illustration picture taken January 15, 2022. Photo: Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Omicron fuels 16-fold rise in COVID cases over two weeks

The highly transmissible Omicron strain has sparked a third wave of infections in Brunei, with the number of new coronavirus cases increasing 16-fold over the past two weeks.

From February 7-13, Brunei reported a weekly record high of 4,731 new infections, compared to 281 two weeks ago.

Another daily record of 1,477 COVID infections was set on Monday, the second time in three days cases surpassed 1,000.

The percentage of people testing positive for COVID also soared to the highest level after one in four people were confirmed to have contracted the virus in the past 24 hours.

While the sultanate is experiencing an unprecedented spike in cases, the health ministry is treating COVID as an endemic disease as over 94 percent of the population is double-vaccinated.

Living with endemic COVID meant that emphasis will be placed on the number of hospitalisations and critically ill patients.

Five people are currently receiving intensive care, including a double-vaccinated 38-year-old with underlying medical conditions.

The bed occupancy rate stayed low at 20.4 percent on Monday.