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Vietnam And Laos Brace For Higher COVID-19 Virus Infections

2021-08-02 -- The coronavirus pandemic in Vietnam is now out of control in many parts of the country due to a fourth wave of infections from the Delta variant, Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long said Monday as the government moved to raise the lowest vaccination rate in Southeast Asia.

Nguyen, a medical doctor and one of the chief strategists of Vietnam's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, told a videoconference in Hanoi that authorities in many places did not prepare well for the pandemic, making the situation worse than anticipated.

On Monday, Vietnam recorded 157,507 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 3,201 new ones, and 1,306 total deaths since the pandemic began, according to figures from the Health Ministry.

Ho Chi Minh City, the latest hotspot for the virus, has had the most confirmed infections with almost 100,000 cases and nearly 1,200 related deaths since the fourth surge began on April 27, with lockdown measures affecting garment manufacturers that rely on exports.

The Delta variant of the novel coronavirus, an extremely infectious strain of COVID-19 that is spreading more quickly than previous strains, was first detected in Vietnam in late April, triggering the fourth wave.

Over the weekend, the Vietnamese government extend the lockdown period in 19 southern provinces, including Ho Chi Minh City, by two weeks until mid-August.

Vietnam has received about 18.7 million COVID-19 vaccine doses and has administered about 6.5 million of them to its population of about 99 million, according to the Health Ministry. About 659,000 people have been fully vaccinated — the lowest vaccination rate in all of Southeast Asia.

The government wants to vaccinate more than 70 percent of the population by the end of the year.

The U.S. government delivered two million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Vietnam on July 9 under the World Health Organization's COVAX vaccine-sharing program, and another 3 million doses on July 25 to boost Vietnam's vaccination efforts amid the fourth wave of infections.

The U.S.-based Viet Tan opposition party, banned in Vietnam, urged the government to better address the health crisis and economic hardship caused by COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns and social-distancing measures by obtaining enough COVID-19 vaccines and undertaking "an equitable vaccination campaign based on science," reducing electricity and gas prices, and distributing financial support packages to the poor.

"Despite the COVID-19 pandemic in Vietnam growing increasingly serious, the Vietnamese government continues to ignore the mistakes they have made without making appropriate adjustments," the group said a statement issued Aug. 1.

"The government does not have significant support for people and businesses affected by the pandemic," it said.

Lao SEZ locked down

Neighboring Laos reported a total 6,765 confirmed virus cases as of Monday, including 199 new ones, and seven total related deaths since the pandemic began, according to Heath Ministry figures.

"We tested 2,298 samples and found that 199 of them were infected with COVID-19 and 193 of them were imported," Dr. Sisavath Southanilaxay, deputy director general of the Department of Communicable Disease Control under the Health Ministry, told news conference in Vientiane on Monday.

Lao migrant workers returning from Thailand, which also is experiencing a surge in virus cases, are bringing back COVID-19 with them as the number of infected returnees has been on the rise over the past three days.

About 100,000 workers have returned from Thailand so far this year, while about 150,000 returned in 2020 amid the pandemic, according to government figures.

Of the 380 new COVID-19 cases recorded in Laos on July 31 — the highest daily number of new cases since the pandemic began — up to 376 cases were confirmed among laborers returning from Thailand, while only four cases were local transmissions, along with one death, according to the daily report issued by the Lao National Health Information Center.

On Aug. 1, Laos registered 267 new COVID-19 cases, including 262 from nationals returning from abroad and five locally transmitted cases.

Rising case numbers have prompted officials to lock down the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone, located along the Mekong River in the Ton Pheung district of Bokeo province close to the area where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand converge. The area is popular among the Chinese who come for its gambling and tourism offerings.

"Because a couple of workers in the special economic zone became infected, and because the virus infection is still spreading fast on the Thai and Myanmar sides, we decided to lock down the SEZ for 15 days starting on Aug. 1," said an SEZ official on Monday.

Health officials confirmed the country's first three cases of the Delta variant of the virus among migrant workers returning from Thailand in June in southwestern Laos' Champassak province.

So far, about 1.2 million people of the country's population of 7.4 million have been partially vaccinated, while about 997,000 have been fully vaccinated, according to government health figures.

The U.S. sent Laos more than one million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in July via the COVAX scheme.

"Starting today, we're vaccinating people with Johnson & Johnson vaccines in an organized way," said a health care worker in Champassak province. For example, Pakse city has 10 villages, so we are allowing residents of each village to come to get the vaccine on different days."

Reported by RFA's Vietnamese and Lao Services. Translated by Max Avary and Hanh Seide. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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