Saigon airport quarantine office personnel run ragged by coronavirus

By Huu Cong   March 22, 2020 | 11:34 pm PT
Workers at the international health quarantine center at HCMC’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport are working around the clock in the battle against the Covid-19.

Inside a room at the airport just before the immigration counters is the quarantine office run by the city Department of Health. The center has been on red alert since January 23 when the outbreak began.

Since then its 80 workers have never left the city, working round the clock with 20 people in each shift.

Their job is to keep watchful eye on passengers entering Vietnam through HCMC at Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Passengers landing at the airport are tested with the Covid-19, Ebola, Mers-CoV, Lassa, etc. to make sure they meet all health standards before going to the immigration area.

Long queues of passengers wearing masks at Tan Son Nhat International airport on March 17. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

Long queues of passengers wearing masks at Tan Son Nhat International Airport on March 17, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

On busy days the airport gets more than 7,000 arrivals, and when two or three flights land at the same time, the center’s staff are overwhelmed.

On March 17, before Vietnamese stopped issuing visas, more than 1,000 people were waiting for health examination at the airport. In Saigon’s hot and humid weather, all were tired and afraid of getting the virus from someone.

In the health examination area, personnel in protective garb were helping passengers with the health declaration form. Their colleagues were waiting right outside the immigration area to measures passengers’ temperatures.

Nguyen Ta Minh Quang, 29, was in charge of the area between the immigration and health declaration areas to guide people, meeting thousands coming from all over the world, including Covid-19 hotspots.

The epidemic started when Quang learned that his wife was pregnant, and for several days after that he stayed at a hotel instead of going home to preclude infection risks.

"It would be bad if I transmitted the virus to my wife."

His wife is now living with her parents in the southern city of Can Tho. He is still busy at the airport and rarely goes out to meet anyone after work.

Huynh Thi My Ngoc, 37, is luckier since her husband is also her colleague. The couple has sent their children to his parents’ house to avoid any risk.

Ngoc keeps a watchful eye on the body temperature scanner

Ngoc keeps a watchful eye on the body temperature scanner. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Cong.

"Every time I start and finish my shift, disease control officers spray me with alcohol from head to toe," Ngoc, whose husband is an officer disinfecting aircraft, said.

For the last two months the couple has restricted themselves to home and office and avoided all contact with others.

Dr Nguyen Hong Tam, director of the health quarantine center, cannot forget the meeting on January 23 when health department and airport officials spoke about the novel coronavirus before deciding to kick off their battle against the epidemic.

Dr Nguyen Hong Tam works at the airport. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Cong.

Dr Nguyen Hong Tam works at the airport. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Cong.

Initially the center was asked to place people coming from Wuhan in quarantine. Then, after South Korea, Iran and Europe became hotspots, all passengers entering Vietnam have been quarantined since March 21. 

Tam said: "We do not know when this will be over. We have to remind ourselves to follow all steps to protect ourselves, our families and communities in the battle against the Covid-19."

By far, Vietnam has had 118 infections, including 102 new cases since March 6. Seventeen have been discharged after treatment. Of the current active cases, 12 have tested negative either once or twice.

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