At least 20,000 people are stuck indoors due to COVID-19 quarantine as the number of confirmed new virus cases continues to surge, according to an estimate drawn up by Times of Malta.
The number of people locked indoors could have a crippling impact on the economy, employers have warned, with policymakers urged to take swift action.
The health authorities yesterday said almost 1,300 people had tested positive for the virus overnight between Monday and Tuesday. The figure is a national record.
This meant there are now some 7,735 active cases, with several more in quarantine as a result of being in contact with these individuals.
A conservative estimate shows there could be as many as 30,000 people stuck indoors having to quarantine.
The figure stood at just under 15,000 last week.
Malta currently requires people who test positive for COVID-19 as well as anyone they were in direct contact with to quarantine for 14 days. Public health experts have urged the government to tweak those rules.
Employers warn of staff shortages
Malta Employers Association director general Joe Farrugia warned that thousands of workers are unable to work and various sectors are so negatively hit they are struggling to operate.
Farrugia said employers had warned the health authorities they needed to act as soon as the numbers started to spike to avoid a situation where thousands of people ended up sick or in quarantine.
“We are going to have companies unable to operate. If schools don’t reopen, lots of people will have to stay home,” he said.
“Incoming tourism will be at a standstill. And the government will have to keep issuing the wage supplement, something it just cannot afford with the current deficit. It is all very, very worrying,” he added.
Times of Malta received various reports of a number of organisations being forced to work with a skeleton staff, workers told to cancel their vacation leave or even shut down because so many members of staff are in quarantine and unable to work remotely.
On Wednesday, the Malta Chamber said the current 14-day quarantine period was "unsustainable" and urged authorities to slash it.
Know your rights
Farrugia said employers are also still unsure of their rights when it comes to asking employees about their vaccination status.
While the vaccine certificate must be presented to enter a number of places come January 17 – including restaurants, bars, gyms and other places – nothing has been said about workplaces, Farrugia said.
“So, to sit at a restaurant you need to present the certificate but an employer cannot ask workers on their status. We have been trying to get information on this but to no avail. It makes no sense,” Farrugia said, insisting on clear guidelines.
The drastic increase in cases has sparked several protests from people demanding a shorter quarantine period, especially since the vast majority of residents are vaccinated.
The quarantine period is being reduced in several countries once a patient tests negative but Malta persists with a strict detention period.
Reduce mandatory quarantine
The Nationalist Party yesterday urged the government to reduce the mandatory quarantine period for people who test negative for COVID after having encountered positive cases.
Quarantine of 14 days is currently required for primary contacts.
These are people who would have been in contact with COVID-positive patients. But when such people – and their household – are fully vaccinated and do not test positive, the quarantine period can be reduced to a week as long as they test negative in a second swab test after seven days.
Questions to the health ministry on whether the authorities were considering reducing the quarantine period were not answered.
Meanwhile, the teachers’ union told Times of Malta schools couldn't reopen in January with the current numbers.
The 1,298 new COVID-19 cases reported on Tueasday marked a record since the virus hit Malta in March 2020. The number was also a significant increase from the previous one-day record of 955 new cases on December 24.
According to data held by the superintendence of public health, the new cases were detected from 8,004 swab tests, meaning just over one in every six people tested (16 per cent) proved to be positive.
A total of 82 patients recovered overnight, bringing the number of active virus cases in the country up to 7,735, the highest it has ever been since the virus pandemic started.
But while the new infections continue to soar, the number of people in hospitals has remained steady and the figure went down by one patient yesterday to 82.
That means roughly one per cent of patients are currently treated for COVID in hospitals.
That figure has ranged from 1.04 per cent to 1.92 per cent over the past 15 days.
Hospitalisation rates tend to lag newly reported cases by around two weeks.
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