COVID-19 Surge Stresses Health Care in Myanmar’s Biggest City

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myanmar-mobile-covid-testing-unit-thingangyun-twp-yangon-sept8-2020.jpg Locals wait to receive medical checkups for signs of the COVID-19 virus at a mobile health clinic on a bus in Thingangyun township, Yangon, Myanmar, Sept. 8, 2020.

Myanmar health workers are scrambling to handle a skyrocketing number of coronavirus cases in Yangon region, setting up additional quarantine facilities there in stadiums, universities, and government buildings, health officials said Friday.

The Southeast Asian nation has seen a resurgence in COVID-19 infection rates with 1,635 new cases reported since Aug. 16, according to figures from the Ministry of Health and Sports.

As of Friday, Myanmar registered 2,422 confirmed COVID-19 cases, half of which were in Yangon region, its major population center with 7.4 million people. The state capital of the same name is Myanmar’s largest city, which used to be the national capital of then Burma, and known as Rangoon.

The country of 54 million that is larger in area than France recorded 272 new cases overnight and now has a total of 14 COVID-related fatalities.

In response to the surge, health authorities have imposed lockdowns in all Yangon’s townships, except faraway Kokokyun, a small group of islands in the northeastern Bay of Bengal.

Dr. Myint Htwe, minister of health and sports, said the ministry will open temporary facilities in Phaunggyi in the region’s Hlegu township to treat the growing number of COVID-9 patients, while state-owned sports stadiums in Yangon will be modified to be used as quarantine centers.

In March, the regional government began converting a training complex for civil servants in Phaunggyi into a large COVID-19 treatment center, with the number of beds expected to reach 2,000, according to local media reports, to handle increasing numbers of confirmed coronavirus patients.

Near full capacity

Dr. Khin Khin Gyi, director of the Central Contagious Disease Prevention and Eradication Department at the Health Ministry, said medical workers must prepare for a scenario in which the number of patients could double.

“If COVID-positive patients are young and have no preexisting conditions and show no symptoms, they will be quarantined in separate facilities,” she said. “They don’t need any immediate treatment yet.”

“For those with preexisting conditions or who are seniors, they will be admitted to a hospital, together with patients under investigation,” she added.

The ministry is preparing to run lab tests on patients who have their noses and throats swabbed at community-based clinics, Khin Khin Gyi said.

“Now, our labs and testing facilities have almost reached full capacity,” she said.

At least 73 percent of infected patients do not show any symptoms of the highly contagious respiratory illness, Khin Khin Gyi added.

“Services for taking sample swabs from patients will be extended to community fever clinics at Insein Hospital,” she said. “If they test positive, then they will be admitted to hospitals and treated.”

Dr. Maw Maw Oo from Yangon General Hospital’s emergency medicine department, said about 20-30 people are testing positive for COVID-19 each day at the health care facility.

The hospital is equipped to admit a maximum of 40 patients daily, but it is now handling about 70 people with COVID-19 symptoms, she said.

“It could be disastrous,” she warned. “If we keep getting new patients at this rate, we will need to shut down soon or else the entire system will become chaotic.”

A man walks through a barrier blocking access to minor roads with a sign urging residents to stay at home in Myanmar's commercial hub Yangon, Sept. 11, 2020.
A man walks through a barrier blocking access to minor roads with a sign urging residents to stay at home in Myanmar's commercial hub Yangon, Sept. 11, 2020.
Credit: AFP
Roadblocks, office shutdowns

Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi has urged residents to remain at home and not to travel outside Yangon region.

Authorities meanwhile have blocked off minor roads and closed down offices and factories whenever someone has tested positive for the virus.

“One of our staff members tested positive, so the government shut down our office where we have labs for testing samples for environmental conservation,” said Win Myo Thu, a Yangon-based environmentalist.

“There are many companies waiting for the results from our lab,” he added. “Now all of them are affected by the office shutdown.”

Health officials in Myanmar’s western Rakhine state, which has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in the country, said the situation there now appears to be under control  with fewer COVID-positive patients turning up each day and many others recovering.

Dr. Zaw Lwin, superintendent of Sittwe General Hospital in Rakhine’s capital said there have been 675 COVID-19 patients in the state so far, including 21 medical workers who were infected by patients.

Myanmar’s Committee for the Prevention, Control and Treatment of COVID-19 has banned domestic travel and instructed residents not to leave their states and regions unless absolutely necessary. Government transportation officials have cancelled domestic flights and express bus service as a further preventive measure.

Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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