One more person tests positive in Navy Panshi cluster

The Panshi naval ship (CNA file photo)

TAIPEI (CNA) — A new case of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) resulting from a cluster infection on board a naval ship was confirmed by the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) on Monday evening, raising the total number infections in Taiwan to 438.

The latest case was confirmed after a “weak positive” was obtained a day earlier in testing of the 345 people who were on board the ship and in quarantine to determine whether they could be released and return to their normal lives, CECC spokesperson Chuang Jen-hsiang (莊人祥) said.

The cluster infection occurred on the Panshi fast combat support ship, part of a three-ship “Fleet of Friendship” that visited Palau from March 12 to 15.

The new patient, who has been asymptomatic, has been transferred to a hospital, while the remaining 344 people on the Panshi will be released from quarantine but asked to continue to engage in healthy practices at home, Chuang said.

With the latest case, Taiwan has now recorded 438 new cases, of which 347 cases have been classified as imported and 55 are believed to be local infections, while 36 are from the Panshi, according to CECC statistics.

CECC spokesperson Chuang Jen-hsiang / Photo courtesy of the CECC

A total of 744 people participating in the Fleet of Friendship boarded the three ships on Feb. 21 and were on the ships all or most of the time until they set sail in early March.

The ships returned to their naval base in Zuoying in the Kaohsiung area on April 9, but those on board were not allowed to disembark until April 14 and 15.

The first cases of the cluster infection on the Panshi were discovered on April 18, leading to all other participants being collectively quarantined the same day to prevent a community spread of the virus.

Of the 377 people on board the Panshi, there were 35 confirmed cases before the new case was confirmed Monday evening who were hospitalized. Three of them recovered and were returned to quarantine, bringing the total to 345 as of Monday morning.

Because no new infections were found among the crew of the other two ships in the flotilla — the Yueh Fei, a Cheng Kung-class guided-missile frigate, and the Kang Ding, a Lafayette-class frigate — the 367 on board those two ships were released from quarantine Monday, the CECC said in a statement.

(The Taipei 101 skyscraper displays messages to encourage the armed force, including “May the force be with you,” Monday evening.)

Even with the additional case, the Panshi had a relatively lower attack rate compared to outbreaks in other military ships, argued CECC chief Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who attributed that to the use of face masks.

The risk of infection on the Panshi was 9 percent, Chen said, before the 36th case was confirmed, far lower than that of the cluster infections in the French and American navies, Chen said.

France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier had 1,046 infections among 2,000 people, or about 52 percent of its crew, and the United States Navy destroyer USS Kidd had some 96 infections out of its crew of 330, or about a 30 percent infection rate, Chen said.

“The infections in Taiwan were relatively lower, and it had to do with wearing masks,” Chen said. “Even though there may have been times when masks were not worn, we can see the difference wearing them made.”

Health minister Chen Shih-chung (right) and CECC advisor Chang Shan-chwen during the regular briefing Monday afternoon / Photo courtesy of the CECC

With the people on the Panshi for nearly two months, however, there is the possibility that people were infected in the first few weeks of the mission but then recovered and did not test positive for the disease upon their return.

The military has tested the people on the Panshi for antibodies, which could give a better idea of the actual number of infected during the mission, but the CECC did not release the data.

Meanwhile, CECC advisor Chang Shan-chwen (張上淳) reiterated that masks help prevent the transmission of the coronavirus because it reduces the chances of infection by nasal or saliva droplets.

As a result Taiwan has not yet experienced large scale community outbreaks disease, Chang added.

The acceptance of masks is not as high in the U.S. or countries in Europe where masks are not as commonly worn, Chang said.

To date, Taiwan has accumulated a total of 438 COVID-19 infections, while the disease has infected 1,175,505 in the U.S., 217,466 in Spain, 210,717 in Italy, 202,054 in France, and 186,599 in the United Kingdom, according to CECC statistics Monday.