Family doctors have noticed an ‘unusual’ spike in respiratory infections and sickness this summer, as well as a rise in COVID-19 cases.

While the COVID-19 virus is now endemic globally, cases continue to be detected and numerous countries have noted a spike throughout the summer months.

According to data on local COVID cases uploaded by the health authorities, between June 5 and August 6, an average of 12 positive cases were reported daily.

Between July 31 and August 6, one person died while COVID positive and 151 new cases were registered. In comparison, 86 new cases were reported between June 26 and July 2.

However, official figures likely just scratch the surface, as there is no longer a legal requirement to report positive cases to health authorities. 

Stefan Fenech, a general practitioner who works in private practice, noticed an “unusual” spike in respiratory cases among patients of all ages.

“In summer, we usually see more gastroenteritis symptoms, so stomach pains, vomiting or else skin conditions, such as itches or bites, but this time we are also seeing an increase in respiratory cases,” he told Times of Malta.

“More patients are turning up in recent weeks with coughs, sore throats and nose infections, which is all very unusual for this time of year.”

He noted that the clinic was also busy last summer, which he said was “to be expected” since the restriction to wear masks was removed.

“We saw a number of respiratory cases last summer but, in winter, I thought the situation would be different this summer, not more or less the same.”

He said that he sees around 30 to 40 patients a day, with around four patients testing positive for COVID every week.

“Most people who come would have taken three vaccines, so their symptoms are mild,” he said, adding that, so far, he has not had to admit anyone who is COVID-19 positive to hospital.

“Having said that, I have had a few positive cases who are suffering from loss of scent and taste – symptoms which we saw at the very beginning.”

He said during the past few weeks the clinic has been very busy, which is also unusual during the summer months and has seen patients of all ages suffering from respiratory conditions.

When contacted on Friday morning, he said he already saw three young children suffering from respiratory conditions.

A GP who works in private practice but declined to be named was categorical.

“I struggle to remember a summer when I’ve seen so many sick patients," she said. 

“I always advise patients who have COVID-like symptoms to take a rapid test, there and then. A few months ago, I’d see a handful of positive cases a week. Now it’s probably dozens,” she said. 

Another GP who works at a state-run health centre also said that, anecdotally, cases of COVID-19 have increased dramatically in the past months.

“There’s a lot of sickness going around in the past months. More than you’d usually see during summer,” the GP said. “It’s been a common point of conversation among us doctors – we’ve all noted the same thing.”

Unlike private GPs, who can administer rapid tests to patients and then charge them for it, state clinics rely on patients testing themselves at home.

More patients are turning up with coughs, sore throats and nose infections, which is all very unusual for this time of year

“I can’t say whether confirmed COVID-19 cases are up, as we rely on patients self-testing. But I’ve had many patients who came for a check-up after testing positive and I’ve also seen many, many patients with COVID-like symptoms.”

John Zammit Montebello, another GP who works in private practice, said the number of COVID-19 cases in the community could be much more than what is being reported.

“Many people with symptoms are not getting tested, only those who are very health conscious, are vulnerable or live with vulnerable individuals are,” he said.

Zammit Montebello noted that while he advised patients to get swabbed, this is no longer mandatory and patients often prefer to call in sick for three days rather than test positive and isolate for seven days.

“We need to remember that there is a lot of testing fatigue, now everything is back to normal and people do not wish to get stuck at home to isolate and potentially ruin summer holidays.”

No new variants detected in Malta

This spike is not a local phenomenon.

In recent weeks, US public health officials have warned of a “mild summer surge” of COVID-19 while the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention noticed that hospitalisations for COVID were up 12 per cent for the week ending July 22.

According to studies, the new coronavirus variant – EG.5 – is causing 17 per cent of new COVID-19 cases in the US.

Symptoms associated with this variant are a sore throat, runny nose, fever, cough, fatigue, muscle aches and headaches.

According to a local health spokesperson no new variants have so far been detected in Malta.

“The health authorities conduct active surveillance of hospitalised COVID cases and severe acute respiratory cases to detect and record different COVID-19 variants,” he told Times of Malta.

He said that because herd immunity remains high in Malta, most cases are mild.

Breaking down the ages of reported COVID-19 cases from June 5 to August 6, most positive cases (169) were over the age of 80 and those aged between 50-69.

Another 163 cases were reported between the ages of 30 to 49 and 147 cases aged between 70-79.

Individuals with symptoms should test and, if found positive, should isolate and retest on day seven.

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