Will Chinese arrivals overwhelm Thailand’s healthcare sector?
While several countries have imposed stringent COVID-control measures on travellers from China, Thailand has decided to welcome them with open arms despite concerns about its healthcare sector being overwhelmed.
China will drop quarantine rules from January 8, signaling that its people can resume outbound travel without restrictions.
While this move may sound like good news for both Chinese travellers and tourism-dependent economies like Thailand, it has triggered international over the surging COVID-19 infection rate in China.
Thailand expects to see arrivals from China rise from about 50,000 this month to 90,000 by March.
What will Chinese tourists bring?
Prof Dr Thira Woratanarat, who teaches at the Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Medicine, told Thai PBS World that a high percentage of passengers on flights from China have tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in several countries.
“The infection rate is between 28% and 50% according to reports from Japan, Taiwan, Italy and Malaysia,” the medical lecturer said. “So, how many of [this month’s] 50,000 Chinese arrivals in Thailand will test positive?”
Of those who do test positive for COVID-19, some 15-20% will require medical treatment, so Thailand should focus seriously on the capacity of its healthcare sector, Thira said.
“Will our medical facilities be overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients again? Many COVID patients seeking services brings the risk that medical staff will be infected too.”
The pressure of another wave of coronavirus could also impact quality of treatment across the Thai health system, he said.
“Will medical facilities overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients mean that other patients will be negatively affected?”
Thira said he is raising these questions in the hope of prodding Thai authorities to prepare stronger measures for the influx of Chinese visitors.
He said all passengers on flights from China should be subjected to COVID-19 tests upon arrival. Those who test positive should be quarantined and undergo treatment, he added.
“We also need to update travellers from all nations and warn them that they must take precautions, he said, referring to the possibility of new subvariants arriving from China.
What is Thailand’s plan?
Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said Thailand will treat travellers from all countries equally and not impose special rules on those from China.
“But we will come up with another plan if the COVID-19 situation worsens,” he said.
Thailand has now scrapped almost all COVID-19 control measures for travellers. Foreign arrivals only have to show that they have had at least two doses of COVID-19 vaccine before entry.
Other measures are just recommendations. For instance, Thai authorities advise inbound travellers to postpone their trips if they have developed respiratory symptoms. Travellers are also advised to wear a face mask in public and wash their hands frequently while in Thailand.
If they develop suspicious symptoms during their stay in Thailand, they are advised to take an ATK test to determine if they have an infection. If their condition gets serious, they are advised to see a doctor.
According to Anutin, travellers from all countries that require an RT-PCR test before they return must buy health insurance before visiting Thailand.
Thailand will set up a center to monitor the COVID-19 situation and respond to any health emergencies related to international visitors. There will also be updates on COVID-controls via the Department of Disease Control (DDC) website.
“Our control measures may be adjusted if the number of COVID-19 patients surges worryingly,” said Anutin, who also doubles as deputy PM. “We will also monitor the wastewater on aircraft to determine the risk of COVID-19 infections.”
“Health awareness” cards will be handed to international travellers on arrival so they know what to do if they fall ill.
DDC director-general Dr Tares Krassanairawiwong said no temperature monitors will be used at airports as these devices caused bottlenecks in the past and were not very effective in detecting COVID-19 infection.
Is Thailand prepared?
Anutin said that after consulting with medical experts, epidemiologists and deans of medical schools, he was convinced that Thailand will be able to handle a new COVID-19 wave even with the huge influx of foreigners.
“We are experienced in managing such situations and have adequate medical supplies, medicines and doctors,” the minister said.
Thira, however, insists Thailand is not prepared when it comes to medication. Even doctors who contract COVID-19 have had difficulties obtaining effective drugs like Remdisivir, Molnupiravir, and Paxlovid, he said.
“The Public Health Ministry should reveal what it has in stock and how it will manage the distribution. Don’t forget that sometimes medicine stocks are concentrated in just some areas. We want real-time information so we know how to prepare ourselves.”
Prof Dr Manop Pithukpakorn, who works at Mahidol University’s Faculty of Medicine Siriraj Hospital, said Thai authorities should consider random tests on people arriving from China.
When an infection is confirmed, a lab test should be conducted to identify the COVID-19 strain.
He also recommended that travel insurance be made mandatory for Chinese tourists, so they can get treatment if they fall ill.
What steps have other countries taken?
Several countries have introduced special rules for travellers from China over concern of fresh coronavirus outbreaks. The United States, for instance, has imposed mandatory COVID-19 tests on all visitors from China. Since January 5, the US has required that all air passengers above the age of two show a negative test taken no more than two days before departure from China, Hong Kong or Macau.
The same restriction applies in France and Australia, while Japan is testing travellers from China on arrival and imposing a week-long quarantine if they test positive.
Anutin, however, is standing firm on his decision to treat travellers from China the same as those from anywhere else in the world.
“We should not complicate entry rules. We will uphold one standard and set an example for others to follow,” the Public Health Minister said.
What is Thailand’s COVID-19 situation?
Since first being detected in Thailand in early 2020, the virus has infected more than 4.7 million people across the country and killed over 33,000, according to official records.
However, almost all restrictions have been lifted and life has more or less returned to normal over the past few months.
Immunity levels have risen as most people in Thailand have been fully vaccinated against the virus.
“If you have already received more than four shots and have no specific health risks [like diabetes], your symptoms will not be severe if you get infected,” Anutin said.
Free vaccination is still available in Thailand and authorities are urging people to top up their immunity every six months with a booster.
Meanwhile, Thai private hospitals can expect higher demand from Chinese travellers for mRNA vaccines, which are not available in China.
By Thai PBS World