COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Authorities in Sri Lanka on Wednesday widened a curfew and warned of legal action against those evading treatment for COVID-19 after reporting a growing cluster centered around a garment factory in the capital's suburbs.
The number of confirmed cases has risen to 1,022, while more than 1,500 people have been asked to quarantine at their homes, health authorities said.
The Indian Ocean island nation had just reported its first community infection in two months on Sunday. All of the infected people are co-workers of the first patient, who is from densely populated Western province, which includes the capital, Colombo.
Hundreds of people — both factory workers and residents — waited in lines Tuesday at makeshift medical centers to be tested for the coronavirus in the small town of Minuwangoda, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Colombo, where the factory is located.
Some who had tested positive were refusing to go to state-run treatment centers even after the government provided them with transport, Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi said.
Wanniarachchi warned in a statement that legal action will be taken under quarantine regulations against those who evade treatment. Violators of the law could face a fine and imprisonment of up to three months.
On Wednesday, police said they captured a COVID patient who fled from a hospital on the outskirts of Colombo and returned him to the hospital.
Separately, the health ministry ordered a halt to public gatherings such as exhibitions, parties, conferences, indoor and outdoor events, carnivals, musical shows and processions.
Police also widened the curfew in suburbs of Colombo where many of the patients live. Previously, the government had closed schools, universities and imposed restrictions on public transport.
Chief epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera said the new cluster poses a greater risk of spreading the virus in society compared to Sri Lanka's previous clusters.
The government had long touted that it had prevented community spread of the virus because all previously known cases were connected to 31 clusters and only two remained active.
The new cluster at the garment factory is the biggest reported in Sri Lanka. The previous biggest cluster was centered at a navy base and had 950 patients.
Samaraweera said the risk is high with the new cluster because employees at the factory worked close together and also went home every day and mingled with others in society. “Therefore, if people do not support us, we will find it difficult to control this,” Samaraweera said.
Local media reported that police and health workers were visiting the homes of factory workers on leave and were testing them as well.
The country has reported 4,252 cases, including 13 deaths. Of the total patients, 3,274 have recovered.