Health Minister explains problems of mass COVID screening as KMT Party threatens to undermine Taiwan’s anti-epidemic success
Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung urged municipal-level government officials to follow the instructions of the National Health Command Center after some influential members of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) supported a bypass of the national government, and attempted to instigate general screening for COVID-19 at county and city level.
Chen, who also serves as commander of the Central Epidemic Control Center (CECC) warned that local governments must follow the instructions of the national health authorities.
The health minister warned that general screening will produce both false-positive and false-negative results, and that this will create an unaffordable burden on society.
A 14-day quarantine on people entering the country is a far more effective method of epidemic prevention than mass testing.
According to the Minister for Health’s calculations, the median rate of infectious people arriving from abroad would be an estimated 0.2%. Based on this assumption, out of 250,000 people entering the country, 500 would actually be infected.
With the current PCR reagent test accuracy which has a sensitivity of 90%, and a specificity of 95%, out of the 500 actually infected, around 50 would return a false-negative result. If those people were to avoid quarantine due to a negative test result, it would be quite dangerous, so regardless of a negative test result, people should still be required to be quarantined.
Chen explained that more than 249,000 people have been placed under a 14 day quarantine so far. If 250,000 people were to be tested, it would produce 12,475 false-positive results.
These more than 12,000 people would not only exceed the 3,000 specialist beds available in negative pressure, and general isolation wards; they would create overcrowding in hospitals, which are a high-risk area for infection and would overwhelm medical resources.
It would take at least 5 or 6 days before subsequent tests cleared the false-positive result. After being tested positive, three negative tests in a row are required to be cleared of being infected with COVID-19.
For each of the false-positive test results, the impact via contact tracing requirements would be huge. It could shut down the aviation industry, Chen pointed out. For each false-positive result on people entering Taiwan, four or five flight crew members would also have to be quarantined. Passengers sitting nearby the false-positive testee would also have to be quarantined. The problem would then spread to other countries as the positive case would have to be reported via the International Health Regulations of the World Health Organization, with further contact tracing and testing in other countries.
Minister Chen said that general screening comes with a high cost. Countries that have implemented general screening have seen a large number of hospitalizations causing “medical collapse,” causing infected patients to be sent back into the community.
Without the proper implementation of home quarantine, infections spread into the community, creating a vicious cycle.
Mr Chen’s comments come after Changhua County Public Health Bureau implemented a PCR test on an asymptomatic teenager who arrived from the USA and was undergoing a 14-day quarantine. The test result was positive.
The CECC criticized the county health bureau’s action, saying it undermined the country’s epidemic prevention measures.
Some senior members of the KMT, on the other hand, have supported the idea of implementing general screening in 14 counties and cities the party controls, in opposition to the national government.
Nationwide municipal elections in 2018 saw the KMT win a majority of seats, while a national legislative and presidential election in 2020 resulted in a rout of the Chinese nationalists in favor of the pro-Taiwan-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
Both the KMT victory in the municipal elections in 2018, and the DPP’s win in 2020 were at least partly a result of interference from the Chinese Communist Party: the municipal elections went in the CCPs favor with a return of the KMT, who prefer closer ties with China; but when exposed, a public backlash by the Taiwanese electorate saw a massive gain for the DPP in the legislative and presidential election.
It appears that the KMT and allies in minor parties, lacking power in the national legislature, are now attempting to undermine the national government via municipal-level actions.
New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (KMT), today, affirmed his support of the Changhua County Health Bureau’s test on the asymptomatic teenager, saying it was a pro-active attitude, and called on the “central” government to conduct comprehensive screening.
Taichung Mayor Lu Shiow-yen (KMT) echoed the call for tests on all people entering the country.
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