Is Taiwan’s soft lockdown too soft?
Taiwan was #1 in keeping COVID out, but is it doing the right thing to manage community spread?
It’s been roughly two weeks since “shit got real” for Taiwan’s current bout of COVID-19 community spread. According to the latest figures as of 5/23, we’ve racked up 9 days of over 100 cases in a row. The peak was May 17th, with 476 cases.
The orange bars are “retroactively-added cases”, which mean you can squint at the bars one way and conclude the cases are coming down nicely, or you can squirt at it another way and wonder if another retroactively added bar on today’s (5/24) numbers will take us in the wrong direction again.
Let’s take a look at the test positivity rate since the first of May. It peaked on May 15, seems to come down nicely, only to tick up again in past few days.
Since May 15, Taipei has been on Level 3 alert. This alert was set to continue until May 28, but the Health Minister Chen Shih-Chung said on the 24th that Level 3 alert will likely continue past the 28th of May.
I call Level 3 “soft lockdown”. Everyone needs to wear a mask at all times outside. Indoor gatherings of more than 5 people and outdoor gathering of more than ten people are banned. But work continued, shopping and transportation remained open as usual, and most troublingly to me, indoor dining was still allowed.
It is now common knowledge that coronavirus is a disease spread by aerosols, not droplets. Without measures such as increased ventilation, which I can tell you most restaurants in Taipei are not able to comply with in the summer with the air conditioning at full blast, those little plexiglass barriers offer little more than psychological protection.
The worst-affected districts in Taiwan by far, Taipei City and New Taipei City just announced an indoor dining ban today (5/24). This is a local measure, however, and not nation-wide.
What will it take to reach Level 4, or a full lockdown? 14 days of new cases above 100, plus 50 percent of the cases must be untraced to a known cluster. We will almost certainly hit the first criteria of 14 days of new cases above 100 by the end of May, but we won’t hit that second criteria, as we have consistently been able to trace more than 50 percent of the positive cases. Consider today’s cases (5/24)
Of the 590 cases (334 new, plus 256 “backlogged”) we are able to link most of them to a cluster, but we are unable to link 101 of them to any particular cluster, and 105 are still under investigation. It seems to make more sense to me for the untraceable case count be a hard cap rather than a percentage of total cases. Why would 14 days of 51 untraced cases and 50 traced cases trigger Level 4, but 14 days of 51 untraced cases and 100 traced cases not trigger Level 4?
At this rate, we can keep having days like today forever, or even much worse, without moving to a hard lockdown. 1,000 new cases a day? As long as 500 of them are traced to a known cluster. It’s hard not to look at this rule and see a government that is very determined to avoid a hard lockdown.
Taiwan is in an awkward place. It has set the rules in such a way that it will be very difficult for it to go into a hard lockdown, but it’s also becoming increasingly obvious that the current level of lockdown will not get us back to COVID zero. The good thing is, we do not appear to be progressing on a exponential trajectory, but that linear trajectory seems to be flattish, and would likely remain so.
What is the endgame? Are we just going to slow-roll this until vaccination?
The good news is, vaccines ARE on the way. But it is painfully slow. Taiwan took delivery of 400,000 doses of Astra Zeneca’s vaccine last week. Another 20 million doses have contracts signed. Taiwan’s own domestic vaccines will be ready end of July, said the CECC today. How long would it take before we all have two shots each? It’s hard to say.
But until that day comes, Taiwan is not going to know a day free from care. Now that COVID is amongst us and we have decided not to take the pain of a hard lockdown, we will have to live with the pain of a soft lock down until everybody is vaccinated.