Early screenings, experience helped Taiwan contain COVID-19: minister

Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中)
Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中)

TAIPEI (CNA) — Taiwan’s experience in fighting epidemics and its decision to screen inbound flight passengers from China at an early stage has so far helped the country contain the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) said Thursday.

Chen made the comment when asked by a foreign journalist at a Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) press event why Taiwan has had relatively few COVID-19 cases as of today despite being so close to China, the origin of the outbreak, and having extensive cross-strait exchanges.

As of Thursday, the country has had 49 confirmed cases with one death, lower than the numbers reported in many other countries around the world.

In response, Chen, who heads the CECC, attributed Taiwan’s success in containing the outbreak to the country’s earlier experience combating Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 and the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009.

In addition, Taiwan also has an excellent healthcare system with 99.9 percent of the population of 23 million covered by government-run National Health Insurance, he continued.

Meanwhile, the country also took early precautions by starting to screen arriving passengers from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease, for symptoms, on Dec. 31, only two weeks after the first severe COVID-19 cases were reported in the city on Dec. 17, he added.

Chen went on to thank the collective efforts of the nation’s quarantine workers, and medical experts for their advice in gradually expanding the scope of screenings as the coronavirus outbreak has worsened around the world over the past months.

That expansion enabled Taiwan to identify the 19th confirmed case in the country, according to Chen.

The 61-year-old in central Taiwan became the country’s first and so far only fatality from COVID-19 on Feb. 15.

Chen said the man was identified after coronavirus screenings were expanded to include patients with severe flu-like symptoms, dating back to Jan. 31, from Feb. 14, after it realized that more than half of the recent cases in Singapore had no recent overseas travel.

Previously, Taiwan only conducted COVID-19 tests on those with suspected symptoms who had recently traveled to countries with coronavirus outbreaks or had contact with coronavirus patients.

The expansion of screening has so far helped prevent large scale community-level outbreaks in the country, he added.

As of March 12, Taiwan has conducted a total of 15,413 tests, according to the latest figures on the CECC website.

Despite the relatively few cases, Chen said challenges remain ahead and the country will continue to do its best in what will be a long-term fight against the deadly virus.