More than 600 people who have been undergoing treatment for drug addiction at Banteay Meanchey’s Chivith Thmey (“New Life”) Phnom Bak Center in Serei Sophorn City have tested positive for COVID-19 since August 16. Twenty samples from the center reportedly tested by the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh also confirmed the presence of the more contagious Delta variant.
Roeun Sothy, the deputy director of Banteay Meanchey’s provincial health department, told CamboJA on Thursday that about 600 out of the 678 people staying at the center in Serei Sophorn city’s Toek Thla commune had tested positive for the virus.
“There were 601 people, including 30 women, who tested positive for COVID-19,” he said.
Sothy said that authorities had been alerted to the case after a police officer who guards the center as well as a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 on August 16. Provincial health department officials then went down to perform rapid tests on those staying at the center.
The more contagious Delta variant of the virus could be partly responsible for the rapid spread of COVID-19 through the facility. Sothy told CamboJA that authorities had taken 20 samples from people at Chivith Thmey Phnom Bak Center to test for the Delta variant. All of them confirmed the new variant’s presence.
Sothy said that a total of 15,868 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Banteay Meanchey since February 20, with 12,024 recoveries and 123 deaths.
“Twenty-one among 123 deaths included cases of people seriously infected with COVID-19 at home, but they did not seek out treatment [at first] when they got sick. They died immediately on their way to the hospital,” he said.
Sothy explained that the drug rehabilitation center had banned family visits for months now in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into the facility.
“The center does not allow their relatives to visit them directly,” he said. “If their relatives want to send the people inside some goods, they need to leave the goods outside of the center and security guards will clean it with alcohol before bringing it inside.”
Khun Vuthy, director of Banteay Meanchey’s provincial Department of Social Affairs, Veteran, and Youth Rehabilitation, said that all of the patients who had tested positive were now being treated — most of them still within the center.
“We sent 200 people out of the 601 people to a center in Poipet City for treatment,” Vuthy said. He declined to comment in more detail.
Banteay Meanchey police chief Sith Luos said that after the majority of those undergoing drug treatment at the center had tested positive for COVID-19, 38 youths ran away from the center on August 18. They were later arrested by authorities.
“We brought all 38 people who ran out to return to the center,” he said.
Luos added that Banteay Meanchey governor Um Reatrey had been the one to order that 200 of those infected in the center were sent to Poipet City for treatment.
News of the infections sparked outrage among many of the young people staying in the center. One staff member, who asked that her identity be withheld, told CamboJA that some of the patients had staged a protest in the center after testing positive for COVID-19.
“They rioted to seek treatment outside the center,” she said.
She added that while the center had told them that they would be allowed to return home once they had recovered from the virus, many of those in the center did not believe them.
“Now, the authorities [police and military police] went down to educate and crack down on them, and it seems quiet,” she said.
The staff member told CamboJA that three police officials on guard at the center had tested positive for COVID-19, and had since been sent to the facility for treatment.
Chivit Thmey Phnom Bak Center director Prak Saran could not be reached for comment.
In Kongchet, senior monitor of human rights group Licadho’s Banteay Meanchey office, said that the sheer number of people staying close together in the center was worrying.
“I think that it is a serious case because it is a huge infection [of COVID-19], so the authorities should pay attention to them for treatment,” Kongchet said. “This is a lesson to be learned for other drug rehabilitation centers as well as prisons that are crowded with people — they have to be very careful.”
He said that he believed the decision to have some patients treated in Poipet City was a prudent one.
“I think that dividing them up for treatment and treating them with care is better,” he said.
On Thursday, the Ministry of Health reported 533 new cases of COVID-19 including 145 imported cases, bringing the total count to 87,723 including 13,619 imported cases since the pandemic began in early 2020. The large majority of these cases have been recorded since February 20, when the ongoing community outbreak began in Cambodia. The ministry has also recorded 83,298 recovered cases and 1,747 deaths from the virus.