Taiwan authorities digging into phone records, CCTV footage for insight into first coronavirus death

In a photo taken on Feb 6, 2020, a medical worker checks the temperature of a woman at a hospital's entrance in Taipei. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TAIPEI - Taiwan's health authorities are scouring phone records, medical records and security camera footage to piece together the details leading to the island's first death from coronavirus infection, a taxi driver who had no recent travel history to countries with confirmed cases.

The Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) announced the death of the 61-year-old taxi driver on Sunday (Feb 16). It said the man had no known contact with Taiwan's confirmed coronavirus patients, but he did have chronic illnesses including hepatitis B and diabetes.

"This could be Taiwan's first community transmitted case," said Health Minister Chen Shih-chung, who also heads the CECC.

The Taiwanese government has been urging people not to worry about community transmission.

"Taiwan hasn't officially entered 'community transmission stage', and the odds of citizens getting infected in the community are incredibly low, so there is no need for the epidemic prevention measures to be ramped up," said Vice-President Chen Chien-jen, a former medical researcher and health minister from 2003 to 2005.

The taxi driver had many customers who travelled regularly to and from China, Hong Kong and Macau, said the CECC.

Aside from records of his phone calls and hospital visits, authorities are digging into his travel history within Taiwan in an attempt to determine how many people he had been in contact with, and how exactly he had been infected in the first place.

Authorities have determined that at least 79 people were in contact with the patient, and have conducted screenings for 73. The test results of 60 people came out negative, said Health Minister Chen. The remaining 13 are still waiting on their results.

Taiwan currently has 20 confirmed cases of the Covid-19 disease, the man being the 19th and his brother, whom he lived with, the 20th.

Following the man's death, his younger brother was placed in an isolation ward, but has not shown any coronavirus symptoms so far despite being diagnosed with the coronavirus on Saturday (Feb 15), Mr Chen added.

The taxi driver reported a cough on Jan 27 and was diagnosed with pneumonia on Feb 3 when he went to the hospital complaining that he had trouble catching his breath. After 12 days of isolated treatment in the hospital's intensive care unit, he passed away from pneumonia and sepsis on Feb 15.

He was diagnosed with the coronavirus shortly before his death.

His family has agreed to provide a sample of his post-cremation remains to the CECC for further investigation.

Previously, Taiwan had only conducted coronavirus tests on patients who have suspected symptoms of the virus and have also travelled to countries with the virus outbreak or contact with confirmed cases.

But Mr Chen said last Wednesday that Taiwan has expanded its criteria for coronavirus screening to all patients who are exhibiting severe flu-like symptoms since Jan 31, a decision made after seeing how more than half of Singapore's recent confirmed cases reported no overseas travels recently.

Among the newly screened suspected cases to be tested, the taxi driver was the only one out of 113 cases to test positive for coronavirus infection, said Mr Chen.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.