Malta’s first confirmed coronavirus cases should not be cause for alarm and there is no need to amend guidelines related to work, travel or schools, health authorities said on Saturday.
Health Minister Chris Fearne, Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci, Mater Dei CEO Celia Falzon and pathologist Chris Barbara all sang from the same hymn sheet as they revealed details of Malta’s COVID-19 patient zero, urging calm and saying it was business as usual.
“We had been preparing for a first case,” the minister told a press conference, noting that Malta had been one of just three EU countries without any confirmed cases. The other two countries are Cyprus and Bulgaria.
More than 100,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in almost 100 countries across the globe and on Friday the World Health Organisation said that the virus spread was "deeply concerning".
The Chinese state that is the epicentre of the virus, Hubei Province, remains under lockdown. In France, president Emmanuel Macron has urged people to limit their visits to the elderly, who appear to be at the greatest risk, while Switzerland has temporarily barred gatherings of 150 people or more.
On Saturday, Fearne said that authorities had no new instructions for the public at this stage but urged people to take the standard precautionary measures.
Fearne confirmed that a ward at Boffa hospital was being redeployed to use in the eventuality of a COVID-19 outbreak. That 60-bed facility will complement a 12-bed unit at Mater Dei Hospital.
Around 600 medical staff members have received training on how to handle infected patients, he said. UĦM - Voice of the Workers, which counts nurses among its members, said training protocols worked well in some departments but had fallen behind in others.
Medical workers needed immediate training and preparation, the union said, warning of industrial action if that did not happen.
No change to flight plans
Asked whether there were plans to stop flights from Italy or other affected areas, the minister said that the World Health Organisation and European health authorities had not recommended that measure yet.
That response is likely to anger doctors and nurses who have accused the government of political meddling in decisions concerning public health.
In a joint statement, the Medical Association of Malta and UĦM - Voice of the Workers said authorities now had to stop all flights from high-risk areas of northern Italy and implement mandatory quarantine measures – things which Fearne said were not being taken into consideration at this stage.
Medical and nurses’ unions had already clashed with the government on Friday, saying a cruise ship carrying around 2,000 people should not be allowed to dock in Malta and alleging that there was political pressure for it to do so.
On Friday evening, the government said that it would not allow the ship into port to allay public fears it said had been sparked by “misinformation” about the vessel and COVID-19.
Speaking on Saturday, Mater Dei Hospital CEO Celia Falzon said that the hospital would continue to operate "as normal".
"We're only being a bit more stringent in terms of visitors, to try to limit the number of people accessing the hospital. But this was the norm, we just don't always apply them so stringently," she said.
Stepping up measures
Health authorities have been keen to stress that there is no need to panic or take drastic measures, and on Saturday emphasised that the COVID-19 patient and her entire family had been in self-quarantine since returning to Malta on Tuesday.
But preparations for an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases have been quietly progressing.
A shipment of 32,000 face masks is expected to reach Malta next week, and minister Fearne announced a new public helpline – dial 111 – on Saturday. The government has also set up a website to provide coronavirus-related information.
New testing hub to open next week
Fearne also announced that as from Tuesday, anyone diagnosed with flu-like symptoms will be asked to visit a special testing hub, where a swab test will be administered immediately.
The unit will be isolated and will allow the health authorities to work more efficiently, he said. Other countries have also set up similar testing hubs, the minister said.
Details about the new hub will be made public on Monday afternoon before operations kick off the next day.
Testing for COVID-19 occurs in two stages. The first test checks to see whether a patient is infected with a virus from the coronavirus family. It takes approximately two hours for test results to be provided. If the initial test is positive, a second test is administered.
This second test checks whether the coronavirus a patient is carrying is COVID-19 or any other subtype. Results take around four hours to be confirmed.
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