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Interior Ministry temporarily closed, cluster case count rises to 32

Interior Ministry employees line up to get tested on Monday morning, after another ministry official tested positive for COVID-19. Panha Chhorpoan
Interior Ministry employees line up to get tested on Monday morning, after another ministry official tested positive for COVID-19. Panha Chhorpoan

The Interior Ministry has been temporarily shut down after another official in the administration department tested positive for COVID-19, with all ministry workers instructed to get tested immediately.

The Health Ministry statement from Monday reported two new cases in a cluster that has grown to 32 positive cases in the last eight days. One of the positive cases was an official from the Interior Ministry and the other had come in contact with a prior case from Pedro fashion store, which has seen seven cases reported from the outlet.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng asked for the ministry to be shut down, all officials to get tested and for only a small group of essential staff to work in each department.

“I request any officials who did not give samples to test on November 28, please get tested too because we want to be clear the infection has not spread to other departments,” Sar Kheng said in the audio clip released Sunday. 

“The first time, it infected only in the General Department of Prisons, but now it has spread to the General Secretariat and the General Department of Administration,” he added.

Photographs posted online and local media show long and crowded lines at the Interior Ministry, with almost no social distancing, as officials waited to get tested on Monday.

The new cluster, possibly Cambodia’s first instance of community transmission, likely originated from the family of the Prisons Department Director Chhem Savuth, and has since spread to numerous locations across the capital.

As of December 6, 11,305 people from Phnom Penh and seven provinces were linked to the “November 28 event.” There have been 32 positive cases so far with at least nine infection sites across the city.

Sar Kheng claimed that the ministry official was infected at the markets, with the Health Ministry reporting in its Monday statement that the transmission occurred at clothing outlet Zando on Street 63 in Boeung Keng Kang I.

The Interior Minister nor the Health Ministry gave details of how it was ascertained that the official was infected at Zando and was infected at the ministry, where officials and their family members have already tested positive in this outbreak.

Health Minister Mam Bunheng declined to comment and said he was busy with meetings all Monday.

Sak Setha, a permanent secretary of state at Interior Ministry, also said that the infection was from outside the ministry, but that since the ministry was like a “home,” everyone was being asked to get tested.

“There is an officer who worked in the General Department of Administration who is infected with COVID-19 at the Zando shop,” Setha said.

“Even though Interior Ministry officials have been tested, people must pay attention about measures including wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands with soap and if they have any signs of COVID-19, they must immediately get checked,” he added.

Chhan Chansopheak, spokesperson at the General Department of Administration at Interior Minister, said everyone who had not been tested when there was a positive result at the Prisons Department were also being tested on Monday.

 “I did not go to get tested before because I did not have contact with the ‘November 28 event’,” he said.

The government is calling the current cluster the “November 28 event.” Weeks prior to these cases, the “November 3 event” involved a COVID-19 positive Hungarian minister on a state visit, resulting in four positive cases.

Chansopheak added that 1,500 officials had a second test on Monday and 400 others were getting their first test. The government had required people with direct or indirect contact with the first few cases to get tested on December 8 and December 12, for their second and third rounds of testing respectively.

On Sunday night, Hun Sen took to Facebook to clarify that the government was not placing the country into a state of emergency – a move allowed by a hastily-drafted law that was passed early on during the pandemic.

Hun Sen did say that he had drafted sub-decrees for the King and parliament to notify them that the country was being put in a state of emergency but that he was reluctant to submit the documents because of the economic consequences.

“I would like to assure you that there will be no request for the country to be placed in a state of emergency in whole or in part, and there will be no order to close Phnom Penh, like the false propaganda being spread by the wicked,” Hun Sen said, adding that there were rumors circulating of an imminent lockdown of the country.

The Ministry of Education also announced that it was delaying the Grade 12 national examination from December 21 to mid-January, landing another blow to students who have been one of the worst-impacted groups during the pandemic.

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