COVID-19 cases expected to increase in winter – Health Minister


Albert Galea & Karl Azzopardi

Sunday, 25 October 2020, 09:00
Last update: about 3 hours ago

Health Minister Chris Fearne painted a bleak picture as Malta battles against the Coronavirus pandemic, saying that the number of cases is expected to rise even further in the next few months.

Malta has seen an exponential increase in the past weeks, with cases climbing beyond 5,000 while active cases continue to shoot up, reaching more than 1,700 when, in mid-July, they had been whittled down to just three.

Interviewed by The Malta Independent, Fearne insists that the situation is still under control, saying that it was predicted in early summer that there would have been an increase once the warmer months are over.

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“The best weapon we had against this virus was social distancing, so we have to keep avoiding crowds. We also have strengthened our measures at the airport as well to reduce risks of imported cases without having to close the airport.

“We did all that needed to be done. The limiting factor is our doctors and nurses. Malta’s human resources are what they are, and we are trying to use them as effectively as we can while training staff from other wards so that they can help if needed.”

covid 19 cases expected to increase in winter health minister - COVID-19 cases expected to increase in winter – Health Minister

In the past few weeks, Malta has experienced record numbers of new COVID-19 cases, but we keep hearing that the situation is under control. Do you still think that it is under control considering the spike in cases?

“Yes, it is under control,” Health Minister Chris Fearne said.

He pointed out that the authorities are seeing a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in Europe, and the entire northern hemisphere where winter is coming in and they are expecting that numbers in November will be higher and even more so in December and January.

“During the summer months, we had already predicted that numbers will start to increase again come September, it just happens that the EU started seeing a rise from August instead. However, we expected that cases increase during the winter as it is easier for any virus, including the flu, to spread since people start meeting more in closed spaces. Malta’s weather is yet to switch completely, which is why we are foreseeing higher number soon.”

However, he said that, while they know that the situation will get worse, they also know that something can be done about it by following the measures implemented throughout the pandemic.

“The best weapon we had against this virus was social distancing, so we have to keep avoiding crowds. We also have strengthened our measures at the airport as well to reduce risks of imported cases without having to close the airport.”

covid 19 cases expected to increase in winter health minister 1 - COVID-19 cases expected to increase in winter – Health Minister

Fearne also mentioned the importance of recent developments on the use of masks and urged people to not try to find loopholes when using them in public following the recent regulation which made the use of masks mandatory. “Even I found it difficult at first to carry a mask everywhere, but I believe that this is something that people will get used to.”

He added that, from the government’s side, the focus has been on ensuring that Malta’s health system can keep up with the number of cases that might need to be hospitalised because of COVID-19.

“We did all that needed to be done. The limiting factor is our doctors and nurses. Malta’s human resources are what they are, and we are trying to use them as effectively as we can while training staff from other wards so that they can help if needed.”

He reiterated that the situation is under control because Malta is in a position to provide all the help that the country may need in relation to health issues, even if it has to come at the cost of some other services.

“Malta has had a lot of success during this crisis compared to other countries. If we look at mortality rates, Malta has one of the best rates in the world, let alone the EU,” Fearne added. Addressing the recent EU report showing that Malta had the highest mortality rate in the EU, he said; “since we are a small population, when we experience even a few deaths in a week, statistics will still rank us high in mortality rate.”

He emphasised how well Malta is doing by referring to Worldometer statistics which show that Malta is at the bottom of the list of total COVID-19 deaths among countries in EU regions having a 0.94% while Italy, which is first on the list, stands at 8.45%.

As the Health Minister had done during the Easter period back in April, he called for caution for the upcoming Christmas season by limiting gatherings or parties to just people living in the same household.

 covid 19 cases expected to increase in winter health minister 2 - COVID-19 cases expected to increase in winter – Health Minister

When we see a spike in cases, usually it is attributed to certain clusters like the mass events or elderly homes spikes. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case now. Which are the most problematic areas at the moment?

Fearne confirmed that there are no clusters at the moment and noted that when the virus spreads in the community, the most common areas where the virus is transmitted is among families, as a person brings the virus home and infects the household, or at workplaces.

He said that while family clusters cannot be controlled, the government has implemented the mandatory use of masks and social distancing measures in workplaces while encouraging the use of virtual meetings.

 

Over the past weeks, we have seen younger individuals being admitted to hospital because of COVID-19. Could this be an indication that the virus has evolved and become stronger? 

“There is no evidence which indicates that this is the case. As I said previously, winter will bring about an increase in cases which, in turn, will result in an increase in the number of individuals who need to be hospitalised,” he said. Nonetheless, the percentage of people under the age of 60 being admitted to hospital is still minute.

“What we have at our advantage is that we know of every positive case that comes up due to the vigorous testing we are doing. In fact, statistics from the European Surveillance System (TESSy) and country-based statistics, show that Malta has one of the highest testing rates in the EU, second only by Luxembourg.”

This rate is expected to increase with the introduction of rapid testing in the coming days.

Furthermore, Fearne revealed that the government is currently in the process of adding two new hubs, the location of which is yet to be announced.

“Obviously, the more we test, the higher the number of new cases, but this is the most effective way of keeping track of the virus in the community.”

 

Recently, the government announced that bars and clubs have to be closed by 11pm. What impact can this measure have realistically considering there will still be people congregating?

Fearne explained that this measure was suggested by the Superintendence of Public Health and the police force who reported that despite bars having to operate in the same way restaurants do, the situation becomes difficult to control later in the night.

“The later it gets, especially after 10:30pm, people start getting rowdy and mingling with other tables as they start to drink more which is difficult to keep up with. For this reason, we implemented the curfew for 11pm which has been helping our enforcers control the situation better already.”

 covid 19 cases expected to increase in winter health minister 3 - COVID-19 cases expected to increase in winter – Health Minister

Seemingly, there are situations where schools discover positive cases from a third party as some parents do not inform them about it immediately. Do you consider introducing disciplinary action in this regard?

“Contact tracing takes place regardless of whether or not parents inform the school,” Fearne assured.

He explained that there is a specified system for schools, separate from the contact tracing system for the general public, which informs schools about any positive cases that may arise in their institution.

“We have to be cautious and not cause alarm by posting such things on Facebook or spreading news which may not be true at all. This kind of false contact tracing can cause more harm than good.”

 

In Parliament, you said that if everything goes as planned, we will have the vaccine by next January. How optimistic are you that this will happen?

The Health Minister said that this depends on the results of the ongoing tests which should prove that the vaccine is not only efficient but also safe to administer, as is taking place in a number of health institutions around the world.

He explained that usually small countries like Malta suffer in a situation when there is a product in high demand and with limited supply as usually larger countries are first on the list. However, the Maltese government has been communicating with larger countries since February and later extended the call for the whole of EU so that when the Union gets the vaccine it has enough to cater to all member states. 

“We have three arrangements with AstraZeneca plc, Sanofi u Janssen from Johnson and Johnson, and, yes, we have enough of the vaccine booked for all of the country. We will first prioritise vulnerable people with the first batch and in around six months the authorities will have enough vaccines for the whole population.”

 covid 19 cases expected to increase in winter health minister 4 - COVID-19 cases expected to increase in winter – Health Minister

A lot of people are hoping that the vaccine will take life back to normality. Is this true or will certain measures like social distancing still be recommended?

Fearne alluded to the fact that COVID-19 is not the first pandemic that the world experienced and these viruses, apart from smallpox which is eradicated, are still around but in a very limited manner. Additionally, since most people have had a shot for them, the population is resistance to it.

“If the vaccine works and the resistance for COVID-19 lasts for a long time, the same will happen with this pandemic; the virus will stay and become a part of our lives but it will infect smaller pools of people and gradually decrease its presence.”

 

Do you think that because of COVID-19 we will have more flu-related infections and deaths?

“Actually, the opposite is happening,” the Health Minister pointed out.

He explained that the measures that were implemented for COVID-19 help keep the flu at bay as well; a phenomenon that has been reported in Australia and also Italy.

“Thus, maintaining the measures we have now can not only help us with the pandemic but also with other viruses.”

 

At the start of the pandemic in Malta, a tender for a temporary hospital was issued but was later halted when cases diminished. If cases keep increasing like you said, do you think that this was a rash decision?

“No, when we opened a tender for this hospital, we had a lack of resources like ventilators and we started seeing where we could get more. Having the infrastructure is not enough, it must be fully equipped,” he said.

He went on to say that, all the things Malta needed have been bought and delivered, the only limiting factor now is not beds or apparatus, it is human resources who need to care for the patients.

“We have also launched a tender for a pandemic reserve so that even when the pandemic blows over, we will have a reserve of equipment that will keep us prepared for any other similar situation without having to sacrifice other services for it.”

 

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