Thailand sends Covid patients home on trains as virus cases and deaths mount in the capital

A health worker with protective gear walks inside a carriage as the train prepares to carry a group of Covid-19 patients to their hometowns, at Rangsit station in Pathum Thani province, Thailand, on July 27.

Bangkok (CNN)Thai citizens seeking Covid-19 treatment in Bangkok are being returned to their hometowns by train, in an effort to alleviate the burden on the capital's medical system.

Thailand is struggling to contain its worst Covid-19 wave of the pandemic, with hospitals in Bangkok becoming overwhelmed by a surge in cases and demand for beds greatly outstripping capacity.
On Tuesday, a train carrying 135 migrant workers with mild or no Covid symptoms left Bangkok for the country's northeastern provinces, Thailand's Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said in a Facebook post. The train was set to drop patients off in seven provinces, where they will be picked up by a team of doctors and nurses, and sent for isolation and treatment.
    "There should be no fear of the spread of Covid-19 since we have a good system from the beginning taking them from their accommodation to their destinations," Anutin said. "You should be confident it will be a 'sealed route'."
      A Covid-19 patient boards a train at Rangsit station on the outskirts of Bangkok to head to her hometown on July 27.
      On Wednesday, the Southeast Asian nation reported 16,533 Covid-19 cases -- its highest single-day number of new infections -- and 133 new deaths, according to the country's Covid task force CCSA. In total, there have been 543,361 confirmed infections and 4,397 fatalities from the virus, the CCSA said.
      Last week, there was public outcry after several bodies were found dead on the streets and left lying on the road for hours before an ambulance retrieved them. The deputy chief of the Metropolitan Police Bureau, Maj. Gen. Piya Tawichai, told CNN that of the four bodies recovered, at least two were confirmed to have Covid-19.
      "There were delays in retrieving bodies from the street as rescue workers had to take extra steps to deal with suspected Covid-19 cases. I have to admit that there's a lot of work," Piya said.
      Chonlada U-tarasai, niece of one of the deceased who was a motorbike taxi driver, said she was "speechless" when she saw the images on social media.
      "How has Thailand come to this point?" she asked. "I was devastated because this happened to my own family, after I had seen people dropped dead on the street. It was a horrific picture to see, and it should not happen to any families."
      With rising cases and deaths spurred by new variants, including the Delta strain first identified in India, and amid sluggish vaccine rates, authorities are racing to lessen the burden on the health care system.
      In the capital, which has suffered the brunt of new cases, authorities plan to convert 15 passenger train carriages into a community isolation facility for Covid-19 patients waiting for hospital beds, Bangkok's governor Aswin Kwanmuang said on Tuesday.
      The converted train carriages will hold 240 beds and are expected to be operational from Friday.
      "Adjustment is needed inside the cars, mosquito nets will be installed at windows, and water and electricity system will be installed. Toilets will be built outside the cars," Aswin said in a Facebook post.
      Workers prepare mattresses and blankets for some 1,800 cardboard beds at a Covid-19 field hospital inside a warehouse at the Don Mueang International Airport in Bangkok on July 27.
      Meanwhile, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has announced more community isolation facilities will be set up in each of the capital's 50 districts to receive Covid-19 patients who cannot isolate at home. Sports stadiums, temples and private buildings have also been turned into coronavirus isolation wards.
      The rush comes as Thai health officials said demand for hospital beds in Bangkok is three times higher than current capacity because of the surge in Covid-19 cases.
      Somsak Akkasilp, director-general to the Public Health Ministry's medical service, warned that emergency rooms across Bangkok were refusing to admit new patients because they have run out of room, despite many hospitals already expanding ER beds to other hospital departments.
      At least 170,000 Covid-19 patients are being treated at formal hospitals and field hospitals. Of those, 4,284 people are in critical condition and 954 are relying on ventilators.
      A lockdown imposed in the capital's metropolitan area was not being followed enough by residents and traffic on Bangkok's streets remained heavy, according to Somsak, who urged residents to follow the rules.
      Health workers prepare their protective gear before a group of people infected with Covid-19 arrive at Rangsit train station near Bangkok on July 27.
      "Frankly, the infection rate, especially in Bangkok metropolitan, has at least three times exceeded the capacity of the public health system and the amount hospital beds can accommodate," Somsak said. "Our doctors, nurses and other frontline medical staff are working at their best. They are more than willing to take care of every patient, but we have to ask for your kind understanding, the beds are now really overwhelmed."
      Thailand is aiming to vaccinate 50 million people by the end of the year. But according to data published by the Center for Covid-19 Situation Administration, 23% of the country's 70 million people have received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine, while 5% are fully vaccinated as of July 27.
      Last week, the the country's National Vaccine Institute apologized to the public for the shortage of vaccines in the country.
      "The situation is also beyond our expectation. The Covid-19 outbreak is something we have never experienced before," The institute's director, Dr. Nakhon Premsri, said. "And this has caused the institute to be unable to find vaccines in time for the situation. We have to apologize to our fellow Thais."
        As Thailand tries to ramp up its vaccine program, Nakhon said the country will join the global vaccine sharing program COVAX, with the first doses expected to arrive in the first quarter of 2022. Meanwhile, 5 million doses of Moderna have been purchased, and 3.9 million are expected to arrive sometime this year. AstraZeneca also promised to deliver 61 million doses of its vaccine, of which 11.3 million doses have been delivered to Thailand. Details of the agreement and timeframe have not been released.
        People in 13 provinces severely hit by the Delta variant are being given priority vaccination, the CCSA said. And a new round of mass vaccination in Bangkok will start on August 1, after vaccines of those aged 60 and above have been completed. Bang Sue Grand Station has been set up as Bangkok's central vaccination center, able to accommodate 20,000 vaccinations per day.