SAMUT SAKHON — Alarm was raised when words came out that Samut Sakhon Gov. Veerasak Vijitsaengsri tested positive for the coronavirus in late December – just one day after he toured the province and held meetings with scores of government officials central to the effort to contain the pandemic.
But despite the dangerously close proximity, none of them appeared to have caught the virus from Veerasak, an official said Monday, most likely because the Governor – who remains in critical condition – kept his face mask on for most of the time, proving once again the value of the habit recommended by many doctors.
“No one else was infected, except the governor’s wife,” Samut Sakhon health office chief Naretrit Kattasima said by phone. “He maintained good care of himself. He wore a face mask almost all of the time and followed all the precautions.”
Veerasak was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Dec. 28, a day after public health minister Anutin Charnvirakul and an entourage of key health professionals visited Samut Sakhon, where the second wave of the coronavirus outbreak was first identified.
Veerasak and the group cooked seafood to raise public confidence, toured a field hospital, talked to local residents, and held meetings inside an air-conditioned room. Photos showed Veerasak wearing his face mask during the trip, except when he took it off briefly to eat shrimp fried rice and tom yum kung next to Anutin.
After the news of Veerasak’s infection broke, Anutin and other officials went into self-isolation for two weeks, but they reportedly tested negative for the coronavirus.
Chulalongkorn Hospital virologist Yong Poovorawan, who was part of the entourage that visited Veerasak, credited the use of face masks for preventing a cluster of outbreak within the government circles.
“I was in Samut Sakhon with the Governor for the entire day,” Yong said in an interview with NBT. “Because we wore face masks, we didn’t take them off, even though we have a big group, no one else caught the virus. I believe it’s because of the face masks.”
Face masks, once considered to be a rarity, are now an ubiquitous sight in public venues around Thailand. According to a YouGov survey published in May, 95 percent of Thais constantly wear face masks when out in public – the highest percentage in ASEAN countries, compared to Singapore’s 66 percent.
Veerasak is the highest ranking official in Thailand so far to have been known for contracting the coronavirus.
Naretrit from Samut Sakhon’s provincial health office said it remains unclear how Veerasak caught the virus in the first place.
“It’s impossible to tell since he went to different places to manage the outbreak in the province,” Naretrit said. “However, being close to a patient who has their face mask on doesn’t mean that those who are close to the patients are definitely susceptible to infection.”
The 59-year-old Governor is currently receiving treatment at Siriraj Hospital. He still relied on a ventilator, and doctors recently found bacterial infection in his respiratory system, Prasit Wattanapha, Siriraj’s Dean of Medicine Faculty, told reporters on Saturday.
Prasit said the latest symptom is not related to COVID-19 and Veerasak’s overall condition is gradually improving.
“There are chances of infection since the patient is elderly,” Prasit said. “The doctor administered him an antibiotic, but he has to remain on a ventilator to improve breathing. The governor’s lungs did not sustain much damage from COVID-19.”
Veerasak’s wife, Chutiporn, was also infected with the coronavirus but her condition is not severe, doctors said.