Updated 4.50pm

A total of 22 people have been tested for the coronavirus in Malta and all have  tested negative for the virus.

Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci and Mater Dei CEO Celia Falzon urged calm in the latest updated on COVID-19.

While it has continued to spread in Italy and the rest of Europe, they said nobody has tested positive for the virus in Malta. 

They said 22 people exhibiting symptoms that prompted the health authorities to test them for it.

They said the country was prepared for the virus if a case is reported, Ms Falzon said the country was in a "crucial" containment phase. 

She insisted that while the health authorities were trained and ready to handle COVID-19 cases, their main priority at present was containment and that was why quarantines were so important.

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The hospital CEO dismissed the nurses’ union’s concerns that the country was not prepared for a potential outbreak. On training for nurses, Ms Falzon said first respondents from the emergency room as well as staff at the ITU and the Infectious Diseases Unit had already received training and more nurses will be trained in the coming days.  

On whether the authorities would be imposing travel restrictions, Dr Gauci said this was not yet the case, insisting that Malta was following all the guidelines by the international health bodies.

How is Malta preparing for coronavirus?

They also confirmed that a 12-bed unit off Mater Dei has been set up but would not say where this was located, citing “confidentiality”. 

A further eight beds at Mater Dei have have been set up for people who require individual isolation.

The public is now being urged to only follow the official advice coming from the health authorities, with Dr Gauci saying too many people had panicked because they were misinformed. 

A health ministry spokeswoman told Times of Malta that the mild cases unit is not a makeshift centre but a 12-beded medical facility that is already in operation and is separate to Mater Dei. 

The Infectious Disease Unit at Mater Dei Hospital can now cater for eight “infected cases” in separate isolation. 

Flights from northern Italy not being stopped

Asked whether a decision has been taken to stop incoming flights from Bergamo, Italy’s coronavirus hotspot, the health spokeswoman said that the health authorities are advising against nonessential travel to affected areas and to self-quarantine on return from these areas.

According to data from the Malta International Airport, there are 24 inbound flights every week from northern Italy up until the end of March.

Six are from Bergamo, three from Bologna, seven from Milan, four from Treviso, two from Turin and another two from Trieste. The MIA spokeswoman could not provide the average number of inbound passengers for such flights. 

If a patient tested positive, the health authorities were obliged to make the case known

There has been no impact on the number of inbound passengers yet, she said.

The spread of the virus in Italy has seen other countries take drastic measures: passengers on an Alitalia plane which landed in Mauritius on Monday opted to return straight home after being told they would have to go into quarantine.

A hotel in Tenerife has meanwhile been locked down after a visiting Italian doctor tested positive for coronavirus.

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Unanswered questions

The education and transport ministries have been asked whether they have a contingency plan in place in case of a coronavirus outbreak for schools and public transport respectively. The Gozo Ministry was asked whether it had a plan for the Gozo ferry but none of the ministries have sent a reply yet.

The education ministry was also asked whether hand sanitisers will be distributed across schools after Times of Malta received reports that some schools do not even carry soap in bathrooms for safety reasons.

Coop Services have already expressed concern that they have not received any guidelines when it comes to school transport. Schools have stopped holding indoor events, but vans too are confined spaces too, a spokesman has remarked.

Questions have also been raised about self-quarantine, which is still being encouraged by the authorities. Concern has been raised by parents of children who returned from affected areas as they will be missing out on two weeks of lessons. Could lectures be streamed online for such students, one parent asked.

Fake news and misinformation

Referring to groups on social media that have been rife with fake news and misinformation, Dr Gauci acknowledged that most of the calls the authorities were receiving were a result of people being fed the wrong information. 

If in doubt, she said, one should only rely on information that is supplied to the public through the official channels. 

In the case of a patient testing positive, the health authorities were obliged to make the case known, she said, quashing rumours there had been positive cases that went unreported.

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