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WHO urges solidarity following recent COVID-19 cluster

On 28 November, a Cambodian woman without a travel history tested positive for COVID-19 after displaying respiratory symptoms. As of 10 December, the Ministry of Health (MOH) has identified 39 cases in this cluster.

The situation is evolving as MOH continues its investigation of the cluster, known as the 28 November event, and the source of infection, with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO), US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Institut Pasteur du Cambodge (IPC) and other partners.

Globally, as of 9 December, more than 67.7 million cases of COVID-19, including more than 1.5 million deaths, have been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). Cambodia has reported 356 cases to date, with 275 cases acquired overseas and 81 cases locally acquired. No deaths have been reported.

“While it is concerning to this local cluster, it is not surprising,” said Dr Li Ailan, WHO Representative to Cambodia. “As long as the virus circulates anywhere in the world, it is a threat to people everywhere including Cambodia.”

Cambodia has been managing COVID-19 based on three stages of transmission: stage 1, where cases are all imported or linked to imported cases; stage 2, where cases and clusters are locally acquired but are mostly limited to specific locations; and stage 3, where cases and clusters are locally acquired and widespread, in largescale community transmission. With this recent cluster, Cambodia is currently in stage 2.

“Our common goal is to stop further transmission of COVID-19 in order to prevent largescale community transmission, which would have huge health and socioeconomic impacts,” said Dr Li. “We must be ahead of the curve.”

Drawing on months of preparedness for the current response

In past months, the Royal Government of Cambodia, especially MOH, has been working to strengthen preparedness for largescale community transmission through the implementation of the Cambodia Master Plan for COVID-19. With WHO and partner support, the Government, including MOH and other ministries, has strengthened Cambodia’s surveillance, laboratory, rapid response teams and healthcare systems and activated a whole-of-government and a whole-of-society approach to minimize the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic on Cambodians.

The Government has also strengthened local preparedness. While the response is underway in Phnom Penh, all provinces are urged to check their readiness to detect cases and respond rapidly.

“We have been strengthening the system; now it is time to draw on this capacity to respond to this cluster,” said Dr Li. “We can use this cluster response as an opportunity to further strengthen preparedness for possible future outbreaks.”

For example, laboratory testing capacity in Cambodia has increased since early 2020, from 500-600 samples per day at one lab, to more than 3000 samples per day in December. The three main COVID-19 testing laboratories are IPC, the National Institute of Public Health and Siem Reap. The University of Health Science is also in the process of establishing COVID-19 testing capacity and MOH are working on plans to further expand and decentralize testing capacity.

In response to this cluster, the Government is drawing on this strengthened capacity and focussing on the investigation of the cluster, isolation of cases, testing, contact tracing and quarantining of contacts. To date, more than 21,000 samples have been tested.

The Government has implemented targeted measures to suppress transmission of the virus. Gatherings of more than 20 people have been banned in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. The Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport announced public schools would conclude their academic year on 30 November, and private schools have moved online. Cinemas and museums were closed nationwide for two weeks.

Collective health is based on individual actions

Dr Li called on the public to protect themselves, their families and their communities from COVID-19.

“It takes solidarity and cooperation to suppress the virus,” said Dr Li. “We are in this together, and we can only get out of it together.”

Dr Li also noted that while vaccines will be an important tool in fighting COVID-19, even the most effective vaccines will not end the pandemic on their own. Everyone must continue taking steps to protect themselves and others. This includes hand washing, respiratory etiquette, mask wearing and physical distancing, as well as adherence to national and local rules on contact-tracing, quarantining, and other public health measures.

Further, it is important to avoid the ‘3 C’ settings where COVID-19 spreads most easily: crowds, close-contact settings and confined spaces. If you have symptoms of COVID-19, stay home or call 115.

“When we let down our guard, COVID-19 can surge back quickly,” said Dr Li. “We must all do what we can to stop its spread, and prepare for largescale community transmission.”

Fear, worry, and stress are normal responses to perceived or real threats, and at times when we are faced with uncertainty or the unknown, as in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

People are encouraged to talk to friends and family that they trust, and to seek help for physical and mental health and psychosocial needs, if required. WHO has more advice on looking after mental health on its website.

For the most up-to-date information on COVID-19, please visit the MOH Facebook page.