The Southeast Asian country’s justice minister said authorities hoped to prioritize immunization of more than 300,000 inmates and prison staff by diverting doses from the health ministry.
Thailand reported 9,635 new cases of the coronavirus on Monday – the highest number of new infections since the start of the pandemic, according to its Covid-19 task force (CCSA). Of those cases, 6,853 – over 70% – were found in eight prisons and detention centers across the country.
As of Tuesday morning local time, 2,473 new cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed, including 680 in prisons. Thailand also reported 35 related deaths across the country on Tuesday, its highest number of daily deaths, according to the CCSA.
The new figures bring the total number of confirmed cases in the country to 127,184, with 649 related deaths – relatively low numbers compared to other parts of the world. Thailand managed to keep the number of cases low until the most recent outbreak appeared in early April in a Bangkok entertainment district before spreading to a slum.
Mass testing of overcrowded prisons
Justice Minister Somsak Thepsutin said an investigation would be opened into how the virus quickly spread through the prison system and called for transparency in disclosing the results to the public. CNN cannot yet confirm the first appearance of the prison cases, but the number is expected to continue to rise as new infections are confirmed.
According to Thailand’s Department of Disease Control, nearly half of those tested in prisons so far have been infected with Covid-19. More than 24,000 inmates in eight prisons in Bangkok, Nonthaburi, Chachoengsao and Chiang Mai provinces were tested in the first two weeks of May and 10,748 inmates and prison staff were found to be carriers of Covid-19.
The majority of prison cases were found in the capital, Bangkok, but the most affected prison was in Chiang Mai province where just over 60% of inmates tested were carriers of Covid-19, according to figures from the government.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday, Somsak said tests would be carried out in all prisons and would include “prison officers, inmates and administrative staff, including high-level management of the prison department” .
Testing will begin first in prisons in metropolitan areas of Bangkok, with around 55,000 people to be tested, he said.
“The detainees are our fellow Thai people, but they must be confined and cannot be moved anywhere. This is the huge obstacle to solving this problem and in addition the bedrooms are overcrowded, ”Somsak added.
Thai prisons are notoriously overcrowded, with around 310,000 inmates in 143 prisons, according to the prison department. The World Prison Brief reported that the country’s prison system is only designed to accommodate around 110,000 inmates.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement last week that those held in Thai detention centers “are at serious risk from the outbreaks of Covid-19” and urged the government to “act immediately to ensure that prisoners and prisoners have access to adequate protection measures and health care. ”
He said the authorities should “quickly reduce overcrowding by releasing people who do not present a serious and concrete risk to others.”
“The Thai government must be upfront about the outbreaks of Covid-19 in its prison system and how it intends to avoid dire consequences for those detained,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW. “Many people have warned the Thai authorities that they need to act proactively to avoid such a situation, but it seems they got caught sleeping at the switch. ”
Slow deployment of vaccinations
Justice Minister Somsak said vaccination of detainees and prison staff in Thailand was “extremely urgent” and added that he was trying to get doses from the health ministry.
But Thailand has yet to roll out its nationwide mass immunization program. So far, 1.4 million people in a country of 66 million people have received their first dose and 781,000 the second – mostly frontline health workers or high-risk groups.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha declared vaccination against Covid-19 a national priority and said the goal was to vaccinate 50 million people by the end of 2021 .
Thailand plans to start mass vaccinations on June 1, according to Opas Karnkawinwong, director general of the Department of Disease Control (DDC).
“We have 1,000 hospitals. If each of the hospitals administers 500 doses, we can administer 500,000 doses per day or about 10 to 15 million doses per month, ”he said in a post on the Communicable Disease Department’s Facebook page.
To curb the spread of the new wave, Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said Thursday that “vaccine distribution will focus first on epidemic areas”, and to achieve collective immunity “70% of the population in each province must be vaccinated ”.
The focus will first be on Bangkok, where at least 30 new clusters have been discovered, mostly in the dormitories and factories of construction workers. On Sunday, a workers’ housing center in Bangkok’s Laksi district was placed under seven-day lockdown after half of the 1,667 Thai and foreign workers living there tested positive for Covid-19.
However, some sectors are relaxing the restrictions. In Bangkok, catering services resumed Monday with guests capped at 25% of normal capacity.
Meanwhile, other provinces are tightening the rules. A partial lockdown is in effect at the tourist hotspot on Phuket Island, with residents urged to refrain from travel and land checkpoints and seaports closed.
Thailand, which normally depends on tourism for nearly 15% of its GDP, closed its borders to international travelers at the end of March 2020 as Covid-19 began to spread, imposing strict quarantine measures on those who arrived.
The country’s latest wave of infections and low vaccination rates have cast doubt on a plan to reopen Phuket to vaccinated travelers without quarantine from July 1.