Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Prisons official, family test positive for COVID-19, Aeon Mall and school closed

The Cambodian government shutdown Phnom Penh’s Aeon Mall on Sunday after a prisons official and his family tested positive for COVID-19 on November 28. Panha Chhorpoan
The Cambodian government shutdown Phnom Penh’s Aeon Mall on Sunday after a prisons official and his family tested positive for COVID-19 on November 28. Panha Chhorpoan

Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Health Ministry announced Saturday night that Cambodia had seen its first case of COVID-19 community transmission after a high-ranking Interior Ministry official and his family tested positive for the virus.

The new cases come a little over two weeks after the country had another coronavirus scare, when a visiting Hungarian minister tested positive a day after he met scores of government officials.

The Health Ministry on Sunday issued a statement after 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 I in Phnom Penh the evening of November 21, and travelled to Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces 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.

The government has 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 Health Ministry issued a second statement on Sunday after it learned that Savuth had exercised at a Phnom Penh hotel on November 23, which has been closed as well for two days.

Provincial officials have been tasked with searching for contacts and directing them to quarantine centers or to get tested.

“Don’t leave your homes or leave quarantine centers during the quarantine to protect infections from this cruel disease from one person to another and avoid large-scale community outbreaks,” the statement read.

The concerns were evident in an audio clip released by Prime Minister Hun Sen late Saturday evening.

“Now there is a problem in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap province because the wife of the General Director of Prisons was found positive of COVID-19 and then we don’t know how people are infected [from her] and spread into Aeon [Mall] I,” Hun Sen said in the audio clip.

A major concern with the outbreak is a potential spread of the disease to Cambodia’s congested prisons, with the Health Ministry setting up a testing facility at Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh.

The General Department of Prisons (GDP) Facebook page shows the prisons official met with Interior Minister Sar Kheng, senior ministry official Bun Honn, Justice Minister Koeut Rith and other officials last week.

Another post shows that Savuth had visited Prey Sar and met with inmates and officials on November 23, with other posts showing different GDP officials conducting meetings across the country.

On November 18, Savuth met with senior United Nations staff members including Pauline Tamesis and OHCHR acting head Pradeep Wagle.

Nuth Savna, spokesperson of the General Department of Prison declined to provide comment for the story.

Or Vandine, a secretary of state at the Health Ministry, said this was the first case of community transmission in Cambodia and that health officials were still attempting to trace the origin of the infection.

“This is the first infection case in the community,” said Vandine.

She added that people should continue to implement Health Ministry’s advisories and measures to prevent COVID-19, adding that there were people flouting the guidelines.

“So, implement the [Health Ministry’s] measures because it is very important to prevent the infection spreading from one person to another person. If we do not do this. large-scale community outbreaks could occur.”

Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry’s spokesman said that ministry officials who were in contact with Savuth were being tested and asked to stay in quarantine for 14 days. Sopheak said he had not been in contact with Savuth recently.

He said that Cambodian had successfully dealt with the COVID-19 scare from the Hungarian minister’s visit, adding that Sar Kheng was in quarantine.

“Samdech Kralahom [Sar Kheng] is also in quarantine,” Sopheak said, not giving additional details.

The Cambodian government announced on November 19 that it had alleviated any threat of COVID-19 community transmission after more than 1,500 people were directly or indirectly exposed to the visiting Hungarian minister who tested positive for disease.

The Health Ministry statement reported an unrelated case of a 31-year-old Cambodian-American testing positive, who has travelled from the U.S. The passenger and 56 others were now in quarantine for 14 days.