CORONAVIRUS/Public health experts debate universal COVID-19 testing

Taipei,  Public health experts on Wednesday offered differing views on whether Taiwan should test all incoming arrivals for COVID-19, at a press conference held by National Taiwan University (NTU) as part of a broader effort to engage with the public on the issue.

Several health experts and mayors have in recent weeks called for universal testing, worried that people who have the virus but are asymptomatic are entering Taiwan and that could lead to community spread.

Their calls intensified after Taiwan saw an increase in imported COVID-19 cases, and a few foreign nationals tested positive after returning to their home country from Taiwan.

In light of these recent developments, NTU’s College of Public Health held a press conference Wednesday, where two experts presented differing views on universal testing, in the hope of informing the public and government policy-making.

NTU public health professor Chen Hsiu-hsi (陳秀熙) argued that Taiwan should implement different combinations of screening and quarantine measures on incoming passengers, depending on the COVID-19 situation in the country from which they are arriving.

All passengers coming from high-risk countries that have seen an increase in COVID-19 cases, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Japan, should be screened upon arrival, and those with negative results should be quarantined for five days and then tested again after the quarantine period is over, Chen said.

Meanwhile, passengers from medium-risk countries should be tested on arrival, and those with negative results quarantined for five days and then discharged if they show no COVID-19 symptoms upon completion of their quarantine duty, Chen said.

For passengers from low-risk countries, Taiwan’s current 14-day mandatory quarantine is sufficient, even if there is no universal testing, he said.

Chen said his proposal would help Taiwan reduce the cost of quarantine and allow the resumption of business and societal activities.

However, Fang Chi-tai (方啟泰), another NTU public health professor, disagreed with Chen’s proposal of universal testing and shortening quarantine periods based on the results of the tests.

There could be a weak point in universal testing because it is difficult to detect the virus during its incubation period, Fang said, adding that he supports the government’s current 14-day mandatory quarantine for all arrivals.

He said the key to stemming the pandemic is to lower the R0 value, or the number of new infections estimated to stem from a single case, to below 1. In that case, even if there is domestic transmission, it will not spread widely, he said.

The most effective way to lower the R0 is for everyone to wear masks in public to protect themselves and others, he said.

Officials from the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) have maintained that Taiwan’s government will not implement universal screening because its current 14-day mandatory quarantine has successfully kept the virus at bay.

Among the reasons they have cited for not conducting universal testing is the cost — screening all passengers on arrival would cost the government NT$4.2 million per day — and there are still concerns that individuals with false negative results could breach quarantine rules and infect others.

Taiwan currently tests only incoming passengers with COVID-19-related symptoms. However, all arrivals are required to undergo 14-day mandatory quarantine, with certain exceptions including business travelers from low-risk countries. Foreign nationals are also required to provide negative test reports three days before their departure for Taiwan.

Taiwanese officials have argued that even though the current selective testing cannot detect every traveler infected with the new coronavirus, any infected person’s ability to infect others is significantly reduced after undergoing the 14-day mandatory quarantine.


Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel

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