Rear admiral fails to report all fever cases on COVID-19-infected ship

The Panshi supply ship. (CNA)

TAIPEI (CNA) — The former commander of a Navy flotilla on which a cluster of COVID-19 coronavirus infections has occurred admitted to lawmakers on Wednesday that he did not report back to his superiors all the fever cases aboard his ships during their month-long cruise as required.

Rear Admiral Chen Tao-hui (陳道輝), former head of the Republic of China Navy’s Friendship Fleet, however, defended the decision, saying that that he did not do so because the medical officer had already ruled that many of the cases were common colds and not suspected COVID-19 cases.

He therefore decided to continue to carry out the goodwill mission to Palau, one of the nation’s Pacific allies.

Chen insisted that he would have never deliberately concealed information if he knew there were suspected COVID-19 patients aboard the three-ship flotilla that visited Palau from March 12-15.

He apologized to all 744 flotilla members and their families and also to the Taiwanese public over the concern the cluster infection caused to the nation, since many of the confirmed patients had already returned to their homes around the country for three to four days prior to their diagnoses.

Chen made the comments in a phone interview with lawmakers as part of a legislative session held to probe the cause of the cluster infection that has so far left 28 people infected.

The rear admiral was unable to attend the session in person since he, along with the rest of the flotilla, was in quarantine.

Chen was removed from his post a day earlier pending further investigation into responsibility for the coronavirus infections that occurred on the supply ship Panshi, which was part of the naval Friendship Fleet.

His direct superior, Vice Admiral Kao Chia-pin (高嘉濱), commander of ROC Naval Fleet Command, has also been removed from his post.

Rear Admiral Chen Tao-hui does a phone interview with lawmakers during a legislative session.(CNA)

According to medical records released by the military, 148 people aboard the Panshi sought medical treatment 226 times during its month-long trip.

Aside from five visits for fevers, 10 were for upper respiratory tract symptoms.

However, the Navy said Chen only reported one of the cases back to the Naval Fleet Command.

Speaking during the legislative session, Defense Minister Yen De-fa (嚴德發) said Chen was removed from his post as punishment for failing to follow standard procedures issued by the military before the flotilla departed the country as part of a series of preventive measures amid the pandemic.

The Panshi, the Yueh Fei — a Cheng Kung-class guided-missile frigate — and the Kang Ding, a Lafayette-class frigate, departed Taiwan in early March for Palau and returned to their Zuoying military port base in Kaohsiung on April 9.

The crew of the three ships then remained on board for another six days in compliance with Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) quarantine requirements that passengers cannot disembark from ships until at least 30 days after leaving their most recent port of call.

They were finally allowed to leave the ships and return home on April 14 and 15. However, on April 18, the CECC announced that three people aboard the Panshi had tested positive for COVID-19, and the number of confirmed cases had since risen to 28 as of Wednesday.

The CECC originally suspected that the crew members contracted the virus during the fleet’s goodwill visit to Palau. However, it later said that the health authorities are still investigating whether the crew contracted the virus locally or overseas.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) on Wednesday said all staff at the nation’s embassy in Palau have tested negative for COVID-19.

The test results of a total of 48 people, including members of the embassy and technical mission, their family members, locally hired employees, as well as Palau citizens who came into contact with the Taiwanese crewmwen, have all tested negative, said foreign ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou (歐江安).