thailands medical system facing its biggest test as virus surges back - Thailand’s medical system facing its biggest test as virus surges back 

A health worker closes the door of a Covid-19 field hospital, recently set up to combat the spread of the novel Coronavirus, on the outskirts of Bangkok on April 10, 2021. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

With COVID-19 cases now rising by more than 1,000 per day, many Thais are wondering whether the country’s healthcare sector will crumble under the pressure.

Despite the launch of field hospitals and “hospitels” (hotels turned into hospitals) concern is rising that the limited medical workforce may soon be overburdened.

Those fears intensified this week after the Centre for COVID-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) announced that 146 medics had come down with the disease. Thirty-three of the medics were infected at work, which also forced members of their team to quarantine.

Dr. Somsak Akksilp, director-general of the Medical Services Department played down the concerns, saying the number of infections in Thailand is still far too small to disrupt medical services. However, the new wave of infections is spreading faster than the two previous outbreaks early last year and in December.

Photo taken and released on April 21, 2021 shows beds and items provided to patients in a field hospital set up in the Bangkok Arena indoor multi-purpose sporting venue. (Photo by Handout / BANGKOK METROPOLITAN ADMINISTRATION / AFP)
Photo taken and released on April 21, 2021 shows beds and items provided to patients in a field hospital set up in the Bangkok Arena indoor multi-purpose sporting venue. (Photo by Handout / BANGKOK METROPOLITAN ADMINISTRATION / AFP)

What health protection does Thailand have?

Somsak said there are about 400,000 medical workers under the Public Health Ministry. If private hospitals are also taken into account, Thailand has an estimated total of 700,000 medical staff to tend to the population.

He explained that hospitals are dividing their staff into separate teams that are kept apart, so if one team is infected or quarantined, the others can keep working.

“Medical staff are required to eat alone, sitting at least a meter away from each other. Nobody is allowed to talk while eating,” he said.

Somsak added that field hospitals and hospitels require only small teams to tend to patients, with one nurse per 20 to 40 patients and one doctor per 100-200 patients.

Most COVID-positive patients at field hospitals and hospitels are either asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms. Those whose symptoms worsen are sent to hospital immediately.

Fears not groundless

Somsak warned, however, that medical services in some areas may be affected if a sizeable number of their staff gets infected or is forced to go into quarantine. For instance, more than 100 medical personnel in Udon Thani have recently been quarantined due to risk of infection.

Many major hospitals have advised regular patients to postpone their appointments if possible.

When to get a COVID test and what to do if you test positive

With the number of COVID-19 cases in Thailand rising on a daily basis, many people are worrying about whether they have contracted the contagious virus. In fact, even simple cold symptoms can be scary. While health authorities are encouraging people at risk of catching COVID-19 to get tested, they are also trying to allay fears by providing more information on exactly who is at risk.

The King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital is receiving only critical or emergency cases until May 15 in order to focus on COVID-19 patients. “If you have no urgent medical needs, please avoid coming to the hospital,” says a post on the hospital’s Facebook page. “The number of COVID-19 patients has risen to a point where the hospital’s delivery of general services is affected while there is also a risk of transmission on the premises,” it explained.

Siriraj Hospital has also closed its first floor for outpatients from April 21 to 27 after some staff tested positive for COVID-19. “During this period, we will only tend to serious or emergency cases,” said the hospital’s director, Assoc Prof Dr Visit Vamvanij.

He advised regular patients to opt for telemedicine services and have their medication delivered to their home. Those willing to reschedule their appointments can do so on the Siriraj Connect app or by calling the hospital.

Ramathibodi Hospital has made a similar announcement, calling on outpatients to postpone their visits.

Can Thailand prevent a medical meltdown?

Thailand currently has 20,000 COVID-19 patients hospitalised – not a huge number compared to the size of the medical workforce. However, if the ongoing wave of COVID-19 infections continues, the collapse of the healthcare sector may be imminent given that medics also have to treat patients with other diseases.

Rewat Wisutwet, an opposition MP and medical doctor, recently warned that if Thailand’s health system and workers are overwhelmed, it would not just be COVID-19 patients that died, but also others who were denied treatment for serious diseases.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk

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