Taipei, Feb. 17 (CNA) There is no community-level transmission of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Taiwan, despite the nation reporting its first death from the virus Sunday, Vice President Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), an epidemiologist by profession, said Monday.
A 61-year-old limousine service driver, who lived in central Taiwan, died shortly after being diagnosed with the disease on Feb. 15, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) announced Sunday.
The patient had hepatitis B and diabetes, according to the CECC, and had not traveled overseas recently, nor did he have known contact with any COVID-19 patients.
The vice president put forth the view in a post on his Facebook page early Monday, after Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads the CECC, said at a press event a day earlier that the case suggested possible community transmission in Taiwan.
Chen Chien-jen wrote in the post that community-level transmission of the virus is not taking place in Taiwan, according to the four signs that characterize the situation.
The first is when patients who are infected cannot be traced to anyone known to have an infection, he elaborated.
Chen Chien-jen said that although it is still unclear how the victim became infected, most clients of the driver -- the 19th confirmed case of COVID-19 infection in Taiwan -- were travelers from China, Hong Kong and Macau.
Therefore, it is "highly possible" that he had contact with people who were infected but asymptomatic, Chen said, citing the results of the CECC's probe into the death.
The CECC has also found that the patient drove several Taiwanese businessmen who work in China during the Lunar New Year holiday from Jan. 23-29, three of whom visited doctors in Taiwan with respiratory tract symptoms, the vice president said.
The case, therefore, can only be seen as a "locally infected" case, rather than a case of "community spread," he wrote.
According to Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, the second sign of community-level transmission is when there are far more indigenous cases of the virus than imported cases, which is not the situation in Taiwan.
To date, there have been 20 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Taiwan. The 20th patient is the younger brother of the 19th case.
Of the first 18 patients, only two are indigenous. Both are spouses of Taiwanese people who worked in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the disease originated, according to CECC data.
The third and fourth signs of community-level transmission are evidence of a continuous chain of infection, where one patient infects the next and so forth, and large numbers of cluster cases of the disease, neither of which Taiwan has seen.
Currently, "the chances of an average person becoming infected through community infection is very low," Chen Chien-jen said in the Facebook post, trying to assuage public fear over a community-level epidemic that spread after the report of the death.
The CECC is tracking down the driver's three Taiwanese businessmen customers who showed respiratory symptoms, as well as his 79 close contacts.
Of the 79, 60 have already tested negative for COVID-19, 12 are awaiting results, six have not yet been tested, and the one contact that has tested positive so far is the patient's brother, according to the CECC.
Chen Shih-chung said Sunday that the CECC would not be raising its response level from 2 to 1 -- the highest on its 3-tier scale -- in response to the new cases.
He called for Taiwanese people to be alert but not to panic, to wash their hands frequently and avoid crowded places.