As a new cluster of positive COVID-19 cases rose to 14, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday ordered all events and gatherings cancelled, all trials postponed and announced an end to the school year, as health officials scramble to test and isolate potential infections.
The new cluster is linked to the positive results of Chhem Savuth, who is the director general of the General Department of Prisons, his wife and four family members who tested positive over the weekend. Eight additional people tested positive, according to a statement issued Monday, taking the total count to 14 cases since November 28.
Hun Sen was at a groundbreaking ceremony in Siem Reap on Monday and released an audio clip asking citizens to cancel all gatherings of over 20 people, including weddings, for at least 15 days till the government gets control of the new cluster. He said the new cases were the first instance of community transmission in the country.
“This is the point that makes us very concerned,” Hun Sen said in the audio clip.
Senior government officials including Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Justice Minister Koeut Rith, Environment Minister Say Sam Al, Tourism Minister Thong Khon and people in contact with them were also in quarantine.
Health Ministry announced Monday that it had tested 3,332 people in Phnom Penh and seven provinces including Siem Reap, Oddar Meanchey, Battambang, Stung Treng, Mondulkiri, Preah Vihear, but had received results for only 2,248 samples.
People who were in direct or indirect contact are expected to get tested three times: November 28, December 8 and December 12.
“All relevant people must quarantine for 14 days correctly at their homes…or at a quarantine center or hotels,” the statement said.
Hun Sen said that Chhem Savuth’s daughter had tested positive for COVID-19, but her officials results had not been released by testing laboratory Pasteur Institute.
The prime minister said Health Ministry officials will take about 2,000 more samples to test on Monday, and that the government would support vulnerable communities who had to quarantine, announcing $5 a day for them.
The Health Ministry on Sunday issued a statement announcing that Chhem Savuth, director general of the General Department of Prisons, his wife and four family members had tested positive for COVID-19 and had been transferred to Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital for treatment.
But, Savuth’s wife had visited Aeon Mall 1 in Phnom Penh’s Tonle Bassac commune the evening of November 21, and travelled to Siem Reap province before she tested positive. Also, direct contacts with Savuth’s wife had visited Mondulkiri and Stung Treng province, setting off a community transmission scare across the country.
Savuth had attended high-level meetings at the Interior Ministry, travelled to Banteay Meanchey province and met officials and inmates at Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh.
The government ordered the immediate closure of Aeon Mall, American Intercon School in Phnom Penh’s Chak Angre Leu commune, and asked people who had visited the mall, Interior Ministry officials and people in Siem Reap to get tested and quarantine themselves.
The Education Ministry announced that it will end the school year on Monday and that students would return on January 11 next year. But, the ministry allowed for the Grade 9 national examinations to proceed on Monday. The critical Grade 12 examinations will be held on December 21 and classes for students before the test will continue online.
Students have had to undergo two prior closures of schools and only recently were able to return to classrooms after nearly six months.
Nuth Savna, spokesperson of the General Department of Prisons, declined to comment on Monday.
Be Tea Leng, deputy general director of the General Department of Prisons, said all officials at the department and some officials at Prey Sar prison’s Correctional Center 1 (CC1) who had direct or indirect contact with Chhem Savuth had been tested. Of the 190 tests, all were negative and the officials were in quarantine, he added.
“They have tested all officials of the General Department of Prisons and some officials of CC1…but all inmates were not tested because those officials did not have contact with them,” said Tea Leng.
The Phnom Penh’s prisons also announced that they would not transport inmates for the next two weeks, after which the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said it will delay all hearings at the court.
“We will suspend transporting inmates from CC1, CC2, and PJ prison to join the hearing at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court,” Tea Leng said.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said it was not ideal that inmates’ pre-trial detention and trial hearings were being delayed, but that it was necessary for only extraordinary circumstances.
“It should not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody” she said, adding that the government should consider using prison detentions as only a last resort.
Y Rin and Kuch Kimlong, both Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokespersons, could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Yong Kim Eng, president of the People Center for Development, said both government officials and citizens had gotten a little lax in following COVID-19 requirements, such as wearing masks.
“The risk occurs because we forget and we get careless in wearing a mask and keeping clean,” Kim Eng said. “This is a big concern and requires us to be careful at all times.” (Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)