|Soldiers deliver food to people in HCM City when the city implement social distancing. VNA/VNS Photo Hoàng Tuyết|
Senior Lieutenant General Võ Minh Lương, Deputy Minister of National Defence, Head of the Government's Special Working Group on COVID-19 prevention and control in HCM City and southern provinces, spoke to local media about lessons learnt during the localities’ COVID-19 response and key measures for a safe, resilient recovery.
What do you think about the COVID-19 prevention and control in HCM City and other southern localities when the fourth wave of the pandemic started?
When the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic started in southern localities late April, we did not have proper understanding about the Delta variant, resulting in insufficient action. The variant could spread rapidly and dangerously but Việt Nam at that time hardly had any experience to deal with it. Therefore, unvaccinated patients, especially those with obesity, pregnant or elderly people were vulnerable to have their health deteriorate or even face high risk of fatality once they got COVID-19.
During such a difficult time, HCM City’s health infrastructure failed to deal with the complicated development of the disease. We faced a serious shortage of medical staff, equipment and medicine. Because we did not have quick antigen test kits, we mostly used the RT-PCR test method which required much time to produce testing results, so we were also slow in curbing the spread.
Despite drastic joint efforts made by the city’s authorities, agencies and people, COVID-19 was still spreading across the city, especially in industrial parks, crowded residential areas and workers’ rental areas. The city’s health sector failed to deal with such a giant medical shock, resulting in overloaded medical facilities and an increase in deaths .
That was the problem that HCM City faced at the beginning of the fourth wave of the pandemic.
The Government directed the city to change strategies on COVID-19 prevention and control. Firstly, areas were locked down.
Secondly, testing was done as fast as possible. Testing must be faster than the disease’s spreading speed to early detect infections in community and then, manage and treat them properly.
Thirdly, many intensive care centres and field hospitals were opened. Out of 60,000 beds for COVID-19 patients, we ensured medical staff, medicines and liquified oxygen for 6,000 intensive-care beds. At that time, without proper oxygen supply, patients faced very high risks of fatality.
Prime Minister identified "communes/ wards as fortresses, people as soldiers in the fight against the COVID-19", thereby he asked for improved human resources, equipment, especially oxygen tanks for the localities. Patients infected with the Delta strain mainly suffocated due to lack of oxygen, so places which did not have enough oxygen tanks and concentrated oxygen faced difficulties.
The Prime Minister also asked localities to establish mobile healthcare stations at communes/wards to timely deliver healthcare service to people, particularly patients treated at home.
Such adjustments helped reduced the number of critically ill patients and COVID-19 relating deaths, reduced burdens for health facilities at higher levels. The Prime Minister’s directions were strategical ones during the extremely difficult time.
To implement those directions, massive testing and vaccination drives were implemented. Social distancing measures were applied. Authorities paid more attention to social welfare for people to ensure that no one would be left hungry.
Meanwhile, the three-tier COVID-19 treatment model was used effectively. COVID-19 patients meeting certain criteria could be treated at home.
To deal with a wave of pandemic like the one in HCM City, other countries even those with developed healthcare system needed between six and nine months on average. We controlled it within four months. Now the city is entering a flexible safe resilience and resuming daily activities as well production per the Government’s Resolution 128/NQ-CP. Such moves were on the right tracks and suitable to the new normal.
More than 100,000 soldiers and military personnel supported HCM City in COVID-19 prevention and control. What difficulties did they face?
The army was selected thanks to its strong force and good discipline, high mobility and an ability to “complete all tasks excellently”. The Party, State and people always trust the army.
Together with local authorities, they helped ensure social welfare and daily necessities for more than ten million people. They worked at COVId-19 checkpoints, went shopping and delivered necessities to people during social distancing. They helped with testing and vaccinations. Mobile military teams worked at communes and wards offering free healthcare consultancy and medical care to COVID-19 patients being treated at home. They also helped to receive and return the ashes of deceased COVID-19 patients to the families.
The army has gradually withdrawn from HCM City and southern province over the past three months. Could you please tell us about the adjustment?
The Ministry of National Defence agreed with localities, especially HCM City, to make appropriate adjustments in line with the pandemic control.
Phase 1 from October 1 to October 15 for the withdrawal of all infantry forces; phase 2 from October 15 to October 31, gradually withdrawing the medical students who work at field hospitals for the students to return their schools; Phase 3 from October 31 to the end of November, depending on the pandemic situation, we will continue to adjust accordingly. As for the army's field hospitals, when the is no COVID-19 patients left, they will be dissolved.
We are preparing forces and are ready to support provinces in Military Region 5 and Military Region 9 when necessary.
What lessons have been learned?
Applying the Politburo's mechanism on building provinces and cities directly under the Central Government into solid defence zones still has value, even for traditional and non-traditional security. The Party leads, the administration directs, the political system advises and assigns the functional agencies to command and handle. Specifically the Government assigned three ministries of Health, National Defence, and Public Security and identified the Ministry of Health as the decision-making ministry.
It is necessary to have an early forecast and assessment of the pandemic situation, especially new strains of coronavirus.
For HCM City and the southern provinces, from the very beginning, the political system made drastic and synchronous moves. Once top leaders were responsible, decisive, dared to think, dared to do, and dared to take responsibility, the localities soon controlled the pandemic.
Businesses and people in the country and overseas Vietnamese have contributed a lot of effort, money, medical materials and equipment.
We also needed to engage with people, to get their consensus and improve their awareness of disease prevention and control.
We learned that people and authorities must prepare more carefully, especially essential goods, food and medical supplies for these unusual situations. If well prepared, the social distancing will be implemented more seriously.
The final lesson was for the three-tier COVID-19 treatment to work effectively we needed to ensure sufficient medical staff, equipment and vaccines.
What should HCM City and other southern localities do to ensure disease prevention and control and economic recovery when they enter the resilience stage?
Firstly, it’s necessary to continue to help people understand that there is no "Zero COVID". People must be always ready to see new infections and the pandemic could surface anytime. People must remain vigilant, strictly follow the principle of 5K + vaccine + medicine + information technology + people's consciousness to better prevent and control the pandemic. Even when people receive one or two doses of the vaccine, without proper disease prevention and control, people will still be infected and spread the disease to others.
Second, we must develop a test plan to detect SARS-CoV-2 positive people (F0) according to the regulations of the Ministry of Health. When F0 is detected, we will take steps relating isolation and treatment. Areas with high and very high risk of infections should continue to be locked down.
The third issue is to consolidate and build a capable health system with sufficient human resources, equipment, drugs, and oxygen, capable of meeting the new situation.
Regarding treatment, we carefully prepare three-tier COVID treatment model in accordance with the regulations of the Ministry of Health. Localities must fully prepare for the next pandemic prevention and control based on their pandemic levels.
Fourth, it is necessary to develop a plan to protect people who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.Vaccinated people should pay attention to limit contact with those who have not been vaccinated.
If the above four issues are met, the step-by-step reopening of production and business can be done according to a flexible and safe adaptation roadmap, and effective control of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Long-term we need to prepare immediate solutions to those issues, develop national health strategies in which preventive medicine must be strong enough. Private healthcare facilities need to help and we need to actively produce medical equipment, supplies and vaccines. VNS