One of the dens in Bangkok raided by the police following the PM's order. Credit: The Royal Thai Police

Epidemic reconstruction reveals illegal gambling and trafficking of migrant workers are major sources of ongoing Covid-19 spread

As many as 45 provinces have been infected by the infection cluster first exploding among migrant workers communities in Samut Sakhon, while several more have been added to the list by the clusters involving gambling dens and local gambling such as cockfighting

The disease control officers and epidemiologists at the Public Health Ministry have reconstructed the picture of the ongoing spread of Covid-19 and learned that the Covid-19 infection cluster, which first emerged in Samut Sakhon’s Central Shrimp Market in mid last month, has spread to as many as 45 provinces.

“It’s like a bonfire which has sent out fireballs to a number of places,” said Dr. Taweesin Visanuyothin, Spokesperson of the Center for COVID-29 Situation Administration (CCSA) as he revealed the reconstruction for the first time yesterday. “What the disease control officers attempt to do is dousing those fires, especially the big bonfire.”

The spread of Covid-19 from the Samut Sakhon’s cluster, as of January 4.
Credit: CCSA

The country faced sporadic infections of Covid-19 with some few cases and clusters reported after the first round of infections which exploded in mid-March, but it started to see the new surge of Covid-19 infections in late November when some young Thai revellers crossed the border to visit and work in some entertainment venues in Myanmar’s border town of Tachilek, next to Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district in the North and crossed back with the virus.

The virus infections from this group spread as far as Bangkok and two local transmissions were reported out of these before the situation was brought under control.

However, the new local cases spiked with the infections in the Central Shrimp Market in Samut Sakhon from Dec 17 on, starting from one female wholesaler before several cases were reported each day among migrant workers, who were then subject to active case finding and testing.

This prompted the disease control officials to come to an assumption that the fresh outbreak there may have derived from trafficking as some DNA samples showed they were the same to those of the virus strains found in Myanmar.

Over 15,000 people there had been tested before the end of the New Year with new local cases flooding the records, while the infections from the cluster were reported further away in other provinces.

As of yesterday, 45 provinces were reported of having been infected from the cluster. In total, up to 2,526 people have been infected with Covid-19 spreading out from this cluster Over 70% of them were Burmese, and 24% were Thais. (The country’s cumulative cases as of Dec 17 was 4, 281)

The infected provinces include Bangkok, Nakhon Pathom, Samut Prakarn, Nonthaburi Petchaburi, Samut Songkram, Chachoengsao, Pathum Thani, Ratchaburi, and Saraburi.

Dr. Opas Karnkawinphong, Director General of the Department of Disease Control, said concerned authorities have managed to trace infected people outside Samut Sakhon and keep further infections under control.

The map of factories where migrant workers work in Samut Sakhon.
Credit: CCSA

The challenge from this cluster would still remain in Samut Sakhon, where hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are reported. With today’s mapping revealed, public health and disease control officials have learned the vast clusters of factories, markets, and residences where migrant workers work and live in.

At least 11, 302 factories with no more than 200 workers are reported, and 226 more with the numbers between 200-500. Around 100 are factories with more than 500 to 5,000 workers, becoming the prime targets of the disease control teams for active case finding and testing at the moment.

It was estimated by the Public Health Minister, Anutin Charvirakul himself that there are over 400,000 migrant workers in the province, and no body has confirmed so far that all would get tested.

As of yesterday, another 19 foreign workers were intercepted in Bangkok. They were reported of crossing the natural borders and were pending to be transported to other provinces. Seven of them are found to have been infected with the virus.

“If the trend continues, we would not be able to control the outbreak of Covid-19, and that would not be very good for the country,” said Dr. Opas.

A field hospital is constructed in Samut Sakhon with the support by some local residents and leaders now to help take care of Covid-19 patients in the areas, like Pantai Norasingh Local Administration Organisation.
Credit: Samut Sakhon Public Relations Office

Gambling dens

Besides this first infection cluster, the other major cluster out of the new round of Covid-19 outbreaks is found to have derived from gambling dens, mostly mobile.

The first cases were reported from gamblers in gambling dens in eastern provinces, especially in Rayong before the virus has spread to provinces in the same region as well as Amnat Charoen in the Northeast, and Chiang Mai in the North.

As of yesterday, up to 443 people have been infected with the virus from this cluster. In Rayong alone, the virus has spread to almost all every district, as seven out of eight districts have been infected.

The spread of Covid-19 from the Rayong cluster, as of January 5.
Credit: CCSA

As reported by disease control officials, infected patients of this kind of the infection cluster tend to cover up their travel records, prompting difficulties in disease control.

What is also worrying about this cluster is the fact that the infections spread to members in communities as infected people have got back home.

“The activity should no longer allowed in society and be rooted out,” said Dr. Opas, citing its crowded and closed setting as well as close contacts among gamblers that facilitate well the spread of the virus.

Dr. Taweesin said the new worrying trend is local gambling such as cockfighting as a new cluster has emerged out of such the venue in Ang Thong before spreading out in a similar way. So far, the virus from this cluster has spread to five provinces nearby, with 76 people having been infected with the virus.

The other trend under watch is the clusters out of entertainment venues both in Bangkok (105 cases, as of yesterday) and Chiang Mai since the New Year, according to the disease control officials.

Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha seems to recognize the negative roles of such the activities and venues. Yesterday, he instructed the set-up of a committee comprising top investigators from the Royal Thai Police and the Special Investigation Department as well as security officials to investigate and suppress the activities, especially gambling dens.

He vowed to root out their masterminds and “facilitators”, and if any officials are found to have been involved with these activities, they will not be spared.

One of the string operations to sweep gambling around the country in Lampang province.
Credit: The Royal Thai Police

As of today, the Royal Thai Police has reported an arrest of a bunch of 81 gamblers and 13 hosts in Chaeng Wattana district in Bangkok. They will be also charged of violation of the disease control law, the police said.

Last year, in Bangkok alone the police reported to have arrested 16 gambling dens with more than 20 gamblers, with over 350 gamblers nabbed. 3,881 were other gambling cases with 6,231 gamblers arrested. A number of gambling items were also seized, according to the Metropolitan Police Bureau.

Thailand encountered the first outbreak of Covid-19 in mid-March, and similarly it was found to have infected people attending boxing stadiums and entertainment venues in Bangkok.

The boxing stadiums were later allowed to be operated under the so-called New Normal practices, while other risk spots became a major loophole before the virus has eventually striken the country again in this new round.

As of today, the new round of the outbreak has spread to 56 provinces. The country’s cumulative cases have stood at 9,331, with 250 being new local cases, 16 in ASQ, and 99 from active case finding among migrant workers.

66 have died so far.

The five provinces; Samut Sakhon, Rayong, Chonburi, Chanthaburi, and Trat have been placed beyond the maximum control areas, with the new definition given as “the areas with maximum control and strict measures”

The state of emergency to curb the virus since March has been extended for the 9th time, to February 28, or 45 days from the deadline of January 15.

Worldwide, the cumulative cases have stood at 86.83 million, with 1.875 million deaths.