TAIPEI (CNA) — Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), on Wednesday defended his decision to launch an investigation into the Changhua County Health Bureau, saying it was not clear why the bureau had tested an asymptomatic teenager for COVID-19 after his recent return from the United States.
Amid pushback from scholars and Changhua officials, Chen said the purpose of the investigation was not to penalize anyone but rather to find out what really happened.
At the heart of the issue is the case of a Taiwanese teenager who was confirmed Monday to have COVID-19, after he was tested two days before by the Changhua County Health Bureau.
The teenager, who lives in the U.S., had no symptoms of the disease upon arrival in Taiwan on Aug. 5 or while he was in quarantine, yet the county’s health bureau had him tested on Aug. 15, the CECC said.
That was a departure from CECC protocols, under which returning travelers who have had no contact with any confirmed COVID-19 patients are tested only if they have symptoms or are traveling from the Philippines.
On Tuesday, a CECC spokesperson told reporters that Chen had launched an investigation into the local health bureau in question in an attempt to clarify the matter.
Without naming the local health bureau, the CECC spokesperson said the investigation would be carried out by the Department of Civil Service Ethics at the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW).
In response, scholars and local government officials, including Changhua County Magistrate Wang Hui-mei (王惠美), berated the CECC for taking that decision.
The Changhua health bureau should be praised, not investigated, for identifying an asymptomatic patient, Wang said, adding that she failed to see what was wrong with finding a COVID-19 case.
Her views were echoed by other members of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), including New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih (侯友宜), who said the health bureau should be lauded for taking the initiative to test the teenager for COVID-19.
Chan Chang-chuan (詹長權), dean of National Taiwan University’s College of Public Health, also took issue with the CECC’s decision.
“Instead of discussing how to strengthen its disease prevention measures… the Ministry of Health and Welfare is creating much fanfare by starting an investigation,” Chan wrote on his Facebook page. “I do not understand why the government has decided to do this.”
However, at a press conference Wednesday, Chen said his main concern was finding out if there were any breaches of Taiwan’s home quarantine system.
When he first heard about the case in Changhua, Chen said, his main question was how the teenager had been able to obtain a test, since people in quarantine are not allowed to have visitors or go outside, except if they receive permission from the local health authorities to see a doctor.
If the teenager went to a hospital to get tested, or a health professional went to his quarantine location, it would signal “a potential gap in Taiwan’s home quarantine system,” Chen said, adding that he had learned such actions had been going on since February.
As CECC chief, Chen said, he must be fully informed of all COVID-19 measures taken by local health authorities.
The investigation is being conducted by the MOHW’s Department of Civil Service Ethics, which usually deals with bribery and other breaches of the law and is an impartial third entity, according to Chen.
“I don’t want this to turn into a political issue,” Chen said, reiterating that the goal of the investigation is to understand what happened so that the CECC’s current testing policy could be revised, if necessary.
When asked about the issue, Changhua’s health bureau director Yeh Yen-po (葉彥伯) did not comment on the teenager’s case, nor revealed how he was tested, saying only that the bureau had arranged the testing of people returning from abroad, in accordance with health protocols.
The bureau arranged for returnees to be tested at hospitals, with full health insurance coverage, he said, adding that the entire process was safe, non-problematic and fully monitored by the bureau.
He declined to say, however, how many people without COVID-19 symptoms had been tested in Changhua.