Avoiding a Covid-19 disaster in Malaysia


Reuters

A COVID-19 disaster is looming in Malaysia as we watch the case numbers rise. It is semantics to argue whether this a fourth wave or a resurgence of the third wave. What we know is that our control measures are no longer effective, deaths are increasing, younger persons are dying (some with no chronic illnesses) and our intensive care units (ICUs) are getting choked.

Our fear is not just death but “Long Covid”, ie 10%-30% of all adults that get infected, even with a mild illness, may suffer long-term damage to organs and be debilitated for many months.

It would be foolish to think that we cannot reach a state like India is in today. Don't forget what happened to Italy early in the pandemic – they have a much better health infrastructure compared with ours and yet were overrun. Even recently, in Britain, ambulances carrying numerous Covid-19 patients had to queue to get access to hospital beds. Our national health services have been poorly funded and have had limited development for decades. If the current “wave” escalates our health services may have difficulty coping.

We need to work together concretely to mute this wildfire and work towards a Covid-19 eradication plan. It is unrealistic to depend totally on vaccination. The time has come to stop talking about herd immunity and discuss eradication instead. I would like to offer some reflections and suggestions on the way forward based on the current available science and data. This fresh crisis requires that we make a fresh attempt. Key useful measures to address the outbreak are highlighted under the headings below.

Mass rapid antigen testing

We need to use extensive (blanket) rapid antigen testing as a critical part of public health measures to identify all infections possible. Contact tracing has failed as staff are overwhelmed by numbers. There have been a number of models and analysis to support that most countries pick up only a fraction of all cases (possibly 25% in Malaysia) and even Covid-19 deaths are under reported.

Our testing has been limited since the beginning. In April 2021 we did an average of 58,277 tests a day. Only in the past few days have we reached 80,000 tests a day, but that is still far too small a number to have any impact on the raging pandemic.

The argument from the authorities is that the positivity rate is around 3.5%-5%, hence testing is adequate. But the reality of exponential spread in the community, and the failure of contact tracing, show that we are not getting the upper hand on the outbreak.

We need to stop depending on the slow reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests and use rapid antigen testing (RTK-Ag) of people with or without Covid-19 symptoms. RTK-Ag may have a lower accuracy but makes up for that in speed and impact. We should restrict and use RT-PCR as confirmatory tests only for hospital admissions, ie at stage 3,4 or 5 of illness.

If the Health Ministry (MOH) is short on resources, tell the public. In my time in the civil service I often experienced the limited resources we had to deal with. We were often told “manage with what you have”. If testing is hampered by a lack of funds, inform the public and they will be an advocate for the MOH to get resources, or may even donate to support testing.

Even blanket rapid antigen testing may not be enough; we need to learn from the countries that are now putting in place cheap mass weekly testing for office workers, students, teachers as a measure towards eradication.

Track variants (mutations) actively

There has been much data from a number of countries to show that a number of significant variants of the Covid-19 virus have been responsible for a more rapid spread of and a more virulent version of the disease.

We know that some of these mutations are circulating in Malaysia. We require a more aggressive genome testing policy to track these and communicate real-time results to the public by location. If significant variants become widespread, they may hamper vaccination efforts and worsen the current outbreak.

Optimise Covid-19 vaccination

We have had a slow start to our vaccination programme and have just reached 3% of the population with one dose, primarily due to supply issues. Currently daily vaccination numbers are small and most vaccination sites used suboptimally.

It does not make sense to keep vaccination centres open all the time and fatigue our healthcare staff. It would be advisable to use up all available vaccines as quickly as possible by boosting staffing and efficiency at all vaccination sites; and then wait for a fresh supply.

This will provide a rapid rise in vaccination rates as well as offer staff at vaccination centres a break. We need to adequately support our heathcare staff at vaccination sites as they will face an enormous marathon.

We have seen how keen a segment of the public is to support vaccination from the AstraZeneca rollout. There must be a transparent mechanism for stand-by vaccination to cope with the 10%-30% drop out that vaccination sites are seeing. In addition, active reminders to those who have got a vaccination date and solving transport problems for elderly and the poor must be addressed. “Backdoor” vaccinations must cease.

We require transparency in vaccination purchase, arrival dates and supply numbers by type of vaccine. This will offer hope to all our younger adults who are waiting patiently for Phase 3 to arrive.

Improve risk communication for vaccines

We need to boost our risk communication for vaccines; currently it is very limited and simplistic. Just telling people vaccines are safe without offering good local data on side effects is not helpful. It is just like anti-vaccine proponents who say vaccines are unsafe without offering good data or twisting the facts.

We need to share detailed data on side effects openly to kill fake news and rumours. We have to address the reality, that when we vaccinate millions, there will be a few who develop serious side effects, especially from unexpected allergic reactions and rare complications. Denying or minimising this is treating the public as infantile and encouraging the spread of fake news via peer to peer applications.

Some nations have openly shared extensive adverse side effects – for example, Britain’s Department of Health Yellow Card reporting system, Norway’s ADR Registry, South Korea's Disease Control and Prevention Agency. It is time that Malaysia emulates them.

An effective SOP, communicated in a timely manner

We currently have a huge variety of SOP rules that are poorly communicated and often shared late. The current standard operating policies are also inconsistent and at times not based on science and data.

For more than a year there has been a call for a simple, standard colour-coded SOP (as practiced in many countries) to upgrade or downgrade control measures depending on the situation.

In the current crisis, it is long overdue to stop all indoor meetings, religious gatherings and activities of any size; they are the major spreaders of the outbreak. Only essential work activities that need physical presence like factories, food outlets, supermarkets, etc, need to continue working at the premises. All others that can should be encouraged to work from home.

The only indoor meet that should take place are frequent parliamentary meetings. Parliament can convene as all members have been fully vaccinated. As long as they wear good-fit masks the risk is low.

Accountable leadership and oversight required

The public have a worsening trust deficit in current leadership, especially because of a failure of leadership by example – “Do as I say not as I do”. The double standards that are widely evident has seriously hampered public compliance with the SOP.

It is time to stop victimising the public and actively enforce the SOP among government ministers and leaders. The numerous indoor public gatherings organised by ministers should stop. All these are potential Covid-19 spreading events.

The general public would be more willing to be mobilised and face hardships for short periods if they see their leaders are also involved in the struggle to contain the pandemic.

The emergency declaration has not proven effective in controlling the pandemic. We require external oversight and transparency. All elected members of Parliament must meet for crisis discussions and a critical evaluation of current measures. We have empowered all of them to represent us and lead our nation.

Covid-19 is not an isolated issue confined to government or the MOH but an issue of immense national concern. All of us are intimately tied to this pandemic with our future and, at times, our lives at stake. The government of the day cannot dictate to us that they know best and impose their version of action without full transparency and external oversight.

We need all elected representatives, government or opposition, we need all healthcare professionals, government, private, from universities or retired,

we need the many people with ideas from diverse occupations and backgrounds, from all over the nation to all provide ideas and support to end this travesty.

DATUK DR AMAR-SINGH HSS

Consultant paediatrician

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Covid-19 , testing , vaccination

   

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