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Vietnamese Officials Thought They Had Coronavirus Under Control

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Vietnam is the most populous country in the world without a single recorded coronavirus death, and it has that record despite sharing a border with China. The country had not recorded a single case of local transmission for more than three months until last week. Now dozens of new infections have changed everything and left almost everyone there on edge. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's a measure of Vietnam's success in containing the virus that this most recent outbreak has people spooked and behind masks for the first time in months.

TUNG NGO: Almost everyone in Vietnam thought the COVID-19 pandemic in Vietnam - the threat was over.

SULLIVAN: Journalist Tung Ngo is NPR's former producer in Hanoi. Before this, he said, most things had gone back to normal - kids at the playground, people at bars and sporting events. Now...

NGO: ...Everyone is trying to protect themselves. They go to pharmacies and - to buy masks and hand sanitizers.

SULLIVAN: When the virus first got traction in Vietnam in January, authorities in the one-party state quickly used their surveillance skills to implement a rigorous contact tracing and quarantine regime. That, and an enthusiastic public buy-in of social distancing and washing hands and masks, helped keep the total number of infections at fewer than 420 before last Friday. That's when the first new case was discovered in Danang.

Some officials claim this wave is from a new strain of the virus that's more infectious than the one that circulated months ago. There's some speculation illegal immigration may be the cause. Over the weekend, state-run media reported police in Danang had arrested a Chinese national for his alleged involvement in smuggling people across the border from China. But there's no definitive link between that activity and the latest outbreak. Again, former NPR Hanoi producer Tung Ngo.

NGO: There's a - big questions remain how Vietnam would respond to this new wave of outbreaks. And there's nothing that we can be sure the past success in Vietnam's controlling the virus could - Vietnam could do it the same this time.

SULLIVAN: For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEV'S "DUNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.