On Thursday’s second anniversary of the creation of the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads the center, said that it is working toward “zero COVID,” and that precise calculation and careful planning would be needed if the nation must accept “living with the virus.”
He also said if the virus can be eliminated through contact tracing, isolation and other public health measures, unlike the harsh lockdowns in China, then it should be done.
“Zero COVID will be the approach, but not the goal,” he said.
After a janitor at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport was reported on Jan. 3 to have contracted COVID-19, the virus spread rapidly through the airport and into local communities. The number of daily reported cases continues to grow, with many involving the highly transmissible Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2.
The choice between “zero COVID” and “living with COVID” strategies has been discussed in the past three weeks. Officials, public health experts and healthcare providers have all put forth their concerns and suggestions.
It is not the first time the CECC has faced hard decisions. Similar issues were posed when it planned to lower the level 3 alert to level 2 in late July last year, and Chen at the time held the same position: “Zero COVID is not our goal.”
As Singapore, New Zealand and a few remaining countries with a “zero COVID” strategy dropped their goals when faced with the Delta variant and moved toward living with the virus, Taiwan had eliminated its local transmissions by early last month. No local cases had been reported for 33 days.
The CECC is now facing a dilemma again. Should it strive to close off all chains of transmission and attempt to eradicate local transmissions, or adopt a mitigation strategy to tolerate a manageable level of cases? However, Omicron is far more transmissible than Delta or previous variants, and has a shorter incubation period that can speed up the infection rate.
Former vice president Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), a public health specialist, on Friday said that pursuing “zero COVID” is impractical with Omicron. Most people who catch it remain asymptomatic or become only mildly ill, so with rapid screening tests, vaccines and oral antivirals now available, the goal should be accelerating vaccination coverage and being prepared to “live with COVID-19.”
Scientists the world over agree that COVID-19 is here to stay. A survey in the journal Nature last year showed that 89 percent of 119 researchers from 23 countries working on COVID-19 expected the virus to become endemic — that it would continue to circulate in consistent and predictable patterns.
Chen Shih-chung’s statements indicate that Taiwan is not yet ready to relinquish its successful public health measures. However, he acknowledged that local cases might never return to zero, and that Taiwan might have to accept “living with COVID.”
The Democratic Progressive Party Central Standing Committee on Wednesday released a survey showing that 57 percent of Taiwanese accept the idea, while 34 percent want a “zero COVID” approach. Meanwhile, 56 percent think that a level 3 alert would be unnecessary. The survey suggests that the public might be changing its views on the pandemic.
As the CECC continues its “zero COVID” policy in an effort to slow or eliminate local transmissions, it is also important for the government to prepare for a shift to “living with the virus.” It should carefully calculate the nation’s healthcare capacity, reassess the social costs associated with public health measures, communicate with the public on their tolerance for risks and restrictions, and map out clear goals and strategies for a “new normal” if COVID-19 is here to stay.
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