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COVID 19; How It unfolded

The first COVID 19 patient in Sri Lanka was confirmed on the 27th of January 2020, when a 44-year-old Chinese woman from Hubei, China was admitted to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases.

by Prof. Samath Dharmaratne, Navinee Wimalaratna, Charunda Wijeratne 

The COVID 19 pandemic caused by the SARS-COV-2 respiratory virus has been spreading worldwide at an alarming rate, claiming many lives and causing socioeconomic and psychological destruction along the way. The US and Europe appear to be facing the most devastating consequences so far. However, with the number of new patients rising rapidly, Sri Lanka too may possibly be heading towards adversity. 


The first COVID 19 patient in Sri Lanka was confirmed on the 27th of January 2020, when a 44-year-old Chinese woman from Hubei, China was admitted to the National Institute of Infectious Diseases. The first Sri Lankan Local national to test positive for COVID was found on the 10th of March. He was a 52-year-old tour guide who was thought to have contracted the disease from a group of Italian tourists. Gradually, more patients were identified, and most of them returnees from other countries. By the end of March, a total of 142 patients had been found. Even though the severity of the disease has been repeatedly conveyed to the public, many have failed to adhere to the restrictions. Therefore, unsurprisingly, the total number of patients had surpassed 260 by mid-April.

Things took a turn for the worse when a Navy officer attached to the Welisara Camp confirmed to be positive on the 22nd of April. Following that, the total number of patients soared to over 1900 within less than three weeks (graph 1). About 950 of them were Navy personnel and others returnees form foreign travel or close contacts of known patients. During this time, a countrywide curfew was imposed to control further spread. Possible contacts and their families were quarantined in facilities maintained by the Sri Lankan Army, Navy and Air force around the country.

The patients continued to rise at a lower rate up until the 7th of July, when an inmate transferred from the Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre in East Kandakadu was found to have the disease at Welisara prison. Following this, 283 new patients were detected within a span of just 3 days (Graph 2). This included two counsellors who worked at the centre as well as some of their family members. Many immediate measures were taken to ensure the prevention of further spread and the following three months were relatively uneventful. Up to this point, almost all patients had been reported from quarantine centers. The Colombo District was the worst affected.

The peace was again disrupted on the 5th of October when the Minuwangoda–Divulapitiaya cluster of patients began surfacing. The most alarming fact was that these patients appeared to be ‘from the community’ with no apparent contacts traced at the beginning. By mid-October, this cluster exceeded 1500 and is still on the rise (Graph 2). This has been further reinforced by the identification of Peliyagoda fish market cluster. As denoted in Map 1, almost all districts of Sri Lanka have now been affected and a total of 16,583 patients and 53 deaths have been reported as of 15th November. A graphical representation of the disease spread so far is shown in Graphs 1 and 2.

In conclusion, the distribution of COVID-19 patients in Sri Lanka has been limited to clusters of disease spread so far (Table 1). However, the recent data made publicly available from the Department of Government Information appear more sinister with a very high risk of impending community spread. Therefore, physical distancing, handwashing and proper wearing of masks are of utmost importance at this juncture. It is the responsibility of all citizens to ensure their safety and act responsibly to pave the way towards a COVID free Sri Lanka.

(The writers work for the Faculty of Medicine, University of Peradeniya)

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