Experts call for risk assessment before international students return

Image taken from Pixabay for illustrative purposes only

TAIPEI (CNA) — Careful risk assessment or testing should be implemented before Taiwan reopens its borders to international students amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, public health experts said on Monday.

Taiwan needs to consider a country’s COVID-19 relative risk factors, such as its basic reproduction number, which is the average number of people to contract the novel coronavirus from one infected person, before allowing students to enter Taiwan, said Chen Hsiu-hsi (陳秀熙), vice dean of National Taiwan University’s College of Public Health (NTUCPH), at a press briefing in Taipei.

For example, Chen suggested that students from Indonesia should not be allowed entry at the current time because the country’s COVID-19 basic reproduction number is larger than one.

“The epidemiological curve in Indonesia was kept under control for a while but now it seems the curve is rising and because of this I am more worried,” Chen said.

Using the same principle and statistics from other countries that send students to Taiwan, there would be about 222 new COVID-19 infections if the country allowed in around 60,000 international students, Chen said.

The top 10 countries and regions that send students to Taiwan are Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Macau, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, and the United States, according to the NTUCPH.

If students from Indonesia were excluded from entry, the number of new infections would drop from 222 to 155. Chen added.

The idea is to halt entry from higher risk countries and try to keep risk at a minimum until the situation improves and all international students can enter, Chen said.

Another strategy is to have antibody and antigen tests for every student wishing to come to Taiwan.

“If students test negative when they enter Taiwan, then we can pretty much keep the risk of new infections down to zero,” Chen said.

The idea of testing is also consistent with a call by Brown University President Christina Paxson for COVID-19 testing as a prerequisite for reopening campuses in the U.S. in the fall, said NTUCPH dean Chan Chang-chuan (詹長權).

Chen’s statement came after several student and youth organizations called for Taiwan to allow the return of students, mostly Hong Kong students, who were unable to return for the spring semester due to Taiwan’s strict COVID-19 related entry rules.

Under those regulations, Taiwan currently bans the entry of foreign nationals, except for those with residence permits and some categories of businesspeople.

In light of the ban, allowing students to return to Taiwan would help the nation recruit international talent, Chen said.

Meanwhile, Education Minister Pan Wen-chung (潘文忠) on Sunday said that the upcoming summer holidays may be a good time for international students to return with the possibility that priority be given to those about to graduate, and those from low risk countries and regions.

However, any decision as to when the ban might be lifted, will be based on an evaluation by the Central Epidemic Command Center, Pan said.