Medical workers collect samples from colleagues at the sealed-off Taoyuan Hospital following a string of outbreaks. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

A growing cluster of untraceable infections at a major hospital in Taiwan threatens to end the island’s commendable record in keeping Covid-19 at bay.

The large Taoyuan Hospital in the northern city of Taoyuan, directly managed by Taiwan’s Health and Welfare Ministry, has since last week seen the coronavirus infect 13 patients, doctors and nurses in less than two weeks.

The island’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday evening identified two fresh cases, involving an in-patient and his caretaker, in a “green zone” inside the sprawling sanatorium and hospital complex in Taoyuan previously deemed as Covid-free. 

The discovery of the virus in wards and diagnosis rooms at the Taoyuan Hospital, after initial cases broke out there earlier this month, forced the Health Ministry and local authorities to seal off the entire compound in the early hours of Monday.

The city has also put about 5,000 people who had been to the hospital during the past two weeks in various forms of quarantine and all will be repeatedly tested for the virus.

Medical workers have been dispatched to thoroughly disinfect the Taoyuan Hospital. Photo: CNA

Taiwan’s Health Minister Chen Shih-chung warned of heightened risks of community infections when he spoke at a press conference on Monday afternoon, adding that those given shelter-in-place orders would be fined if they left their homes.

Police officers and health workers would enforce the quarantine order and deliver food and necessities to those affected, he said. Chen said the CDC was still investigating how the two cases in Taoyuan Hospital’s green zone had caught the virus. 

The health chief is now under fire for the ministry’s perceived failure to manage risks. It is suspected that medical staff treating infected patients at Taoyuan Hospital could have violated disinfection and deep cleaning protocols before leaving isolated, negative pressure wards or that contaminated materials from the wards could have been leaked to the rest of the hospital. 

But Chen said measures like halting the island’s air travel and closing airports to shut out foreign arrivals would be too draconian and the situation did not warrant them, at least for now.   

Taiwan’s health chief Chen Shih-chung says there are now heightened risks of community infections in Taoyuan. Photo: Handout

Such lockdowns and quarantines in Taoyuan have not been seen since the first case was confirmed on the self-ruled island almost one year ago. Taiwan’s densely-populated capital of Taipei, less than an hour by train from Taoyuan, has also drafted up contingency plans if the quarantines are expanded beyond Taoyuan’s city limits. 

Taoyuan is home to Taiwan’s busiest international airport as well as tech juggernauts like HTC, TSMC and Foxconn. These companies are already making alternative arrangements for staff to work from home. 

It was also reported that a new, more transmissible Covid strain, known as L452R that is widely found in California, had also been detected in the Taoyuan Hospital outbreak. The source has been traced to an imported case from the US who had received treatment at the hospital after testing negative at the airport upon arrival earlier this month. 

National Taiwan University Hospital professor Huang Li-man told reporters that community-level infections may spiral if the new mutant, more virulent strain had already been leaked to the rest of Taoyuan city.

He said Taiwan faced a big risk when a large public hospital became an outbreak hotspot. 

Huang said it would take one to two weeks to see if there would be a new rash of cases in Taoyuan or elsewhere across Taiwan and if stricter measures were needed. 

Testing booths have been set up at the locked-down Taoyuan Hospital for staff and patients there in a bid to find hidden carriers. Photo: CNA

Taiwan’s total caseload now stands at 889, with 95 people being treated and seven fatalities – all lower than the corresponding metrics of Asia’s major cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Shanghai and Beijing.

Taiwan’s modest figures underscore the island’s exemplary response to the pathogen and its mobilization to flatten the infection curve, at a time when most Asian countries are still fighting a protracted war against Covid-19 and mainland China is scrambling to squash its biggest resurgence in nine months.   

Yet the island’s success so far in containing the virus has resulted in a preventative blind spot as Taiwanese authorities have taken their time to source vaccines from overseas and to approve them for immediate use. 

Reports revealed that Taiwanese medical professionals including those at the Taoyuan Hospital had not been immunized. A shipment of the first consignment of German vaccines hit a snag when the island failed to secure a deal last month with a local distributor of Pfizer and German drugmaker BioNTech to procure their shots. 

But Health Minister Chen hit back at accusations about a “vaccine void” created by the government, stressing that doctors and nurses would not have acquired complete immunity against the virus even if they had been given shots at the end of last year, as two doses and an interval of two to three weeks would be required. 

Taiwan has ruled out buying any Chinese-made vaccines and is now pinning its hope on the World Health Organization-led COVAX scheme to purchase doses for its 23.56 million residents.

The Health Ministry said there was no definitive timetable to take delivery of Western drugs. Many countries in Asia have already started inoculation programs for medical and other front-line workers.