6 June 2024

Thai authorities are stepping up campaigns encouraging people to roll up their sleeves and get booster shots as COVID-19 makes a comeback.

The campaigns are designed to combat a new surge in cases, attributed to factors such as students returning for the new semester – but most importantly people’s declining immunity.

“The prime minister is worried about the elderly and vulnerable groups. They should take a booster shot every year,” said Anucha Burapachaisri, deputy secretary-general to the PM and acting government spokesperson.

He added that even young people should get booster shots, which are being offered for free at state hospitals.

“Don’t forget that COVID-19 can still be deadly,” he emphasized.

Deaths surging again

Deaths from the disease have soared more than threefold over the past month, according to official data.

Forty-two people died of COVID-19 in the week of May 21 and 27, said Asst Prof Dr Thira Woratanarat of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine, citing official records.

“The number of COVID-19 deaths has risen by 320% in the last four weeks,” he announced on Facebook.

May 21-27 also saw COVID patients on ventilators soar to 253, up 220.25% from four weeks ago. The number of patients with lung inflammation also surged to 425 – an increase of 170.7% from the same period last month.

Thailand has recorded more than 4.7 million cases of COVID-19 and at least 34,043 deaths from the virus since the pandemic started in early 2020, according to Worldometers.info.

Bivalent vaccine now available

The Department of Medical Services is offering free COVID-19 vaccinations at many of its facilities, including Bangkok’s Lerdsin Hospital and Institute of Dermatology. However, not all of these facilities are offering bivalent vaccines, which target both the original COVID-19 strain and the current dominant variant, Omicron.

Bivalent vaccine is however available in the capital at Rajavithi Hospital, Priest Hospital, and the National Cancer Institute.

An overseas study found bivalent vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna to be 58.7% effective against hospitalization compared with 25% for the monovalent shots that preceded them. The bivalent formulas were also 61.8% effective against infection compared with 24.9% for their monovalent predecessors.

Public advised to keep their guard up as COVID-19 resurges

Subvariants at play

Three Omicron strains are behind the current waves of COVID-19 in China and Southeast Asia, according to the Center for Medical Genomics at Mahidol University’s Faculty of Medicine Ramathibodi Hospital. These subvariants are XBB.15, XBB.1.16, and XBB.1.9.1.

“These subvariants may cause severe symptoms even among people who have already been vaccinated but failed to get a booster shot,” the center warned.

Prof Wasun Chantratita, who heads the center, said the three strains now dominant were not more virulent than the original Omicron. Instead, the increase in severe cases has come because vaccinees’ immunity has declined.

“Many people are no longer returning for booster shots,” he said.

Wasun said that measured on a scale of one to 10, the COVID waves driven by XBB.15, XBB.1.16, and XBB.1.9.1. would score just five in terms of concern caused, since none of them has been declared a “subvariant of concern”.

Precautions help

Thira said it was notable that 31 of the 42 COVID-19 deaths in the week of May 21-27 occurred in just two provinces – Chon Buri and Samut Sakhon. The former is home to the international tourism hub of Pattaya, while the latter is known as “Little Myanmar” for hosting a huge number of migrant workers from the neighboring country.

“It’s best to be cautious, live with our guard up, and protect ourselves as much as we can,” the medical expert advised. “For the wellbeing of ourselves and our families, avoid crowded places that do not have good ventilation, do not share utensils or food with people who are not from the same household, and clean workspaces you have shared with others. If you feel unwell, isolate yourself.”

The advice comes amid a general relaxation of COVID precautions such as mask-wearing, hand-washing, and avoidance of social gatherings as life returns to normal in Thailand.

By Thai PBS World