Health authorities are investigating the death of a five-year-old child in connection with COVID-19.
The young girl died on Saturday afternoon after developing a fever the day before. She was admitted to Mater Dei Hospital in a critical state and died sometime later after receiving CPR.
Health Minister Chris Fearne said that while the child had tested negative for COVID-19 upon her admission to hospital, a second COVID-19 test was “mildly reactive” to the virus.
Watch the press conference in the video below.
It has yet to be established whether the second swab test's outcome is significant and a magisterial inquiry is also under way, as is the norm when a patient dies within 24 hours of being admitted to hospital.
The child had no known underlying health conditions and none of her family members has tested positive for the virus. She was not attending summer schools.
'Mildly reactive' test results
COVID-19 swab test results are delivered on a spectrum, showing the amount of viral load a patient carries, rather than a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ result. A ‘mildly reactive’ result indicates that a person has been in contact with a positive case or recovering patient.
Mildly reactive results do not contain enough viral material to allow for genome sequencing tests, Fearne said.
Fearne was speaking at a press conference on Tuesday which was called to address “rumours” about the child’s death.
He emphasised that it was too early to state whether the child had died of COVID-19 but said the public would be kept informed. The child's family later urged the media to "stop speculating" on her cause of death until test results were published.
Should the child's death be confirmed as linked to COVID-19, she will be Malta's 421st virus victim as well as its youngest one.
Seven patients in hospital
The number of COVID-19 cases has risen considerably over the past weeks, climbing from single to triple digits in a matter of days.
As of Tuesday, Malta had 782 known active virus cases, although only seven of those patients are currently receiving treatment in hospital. One of those - a foreign national who is not vaccinated - is in Mater Dei's intensive treatment unit.
Fearne urged people to be cautious when interpreting hospitalisation numbers at this stage.
"The number of hospital cases starts to go up days and weeks after spikes in numbers," he said. "We cannot yet say that there is no reflection in hospital numbers. It seems the vaccines help, but we have to wait a bit longer to confirm this."
Two-thirds of cases among foreign nationals
More than two-thirds of active cases are among foreign nationals. 15 per cent are Maltese citizens, Fearne said, with some others being foreigners who reside in Malta.
So far, 22 Delta variant cases have been detected. That figure does not take into consideration virus cases detected over the past few days, as genome sequencing for those cases is still under way.
More than 351,000 people are now fully vaccinated - around 80 per cent of adults. Approximately 84 per cent of adults have received a first vaccine dose.
Fearne reiterated that around 90 per cent of current COVID-19 cases are among unvaccinated people. There appears to be no correlation between any particular vaccine and testing positive for the virus, he said.
Malta is administering four different EMA-approved vaccines: Pfizer/BioNTech (60 per cent of all vaccines administered), AstraZeneca (25 per cent), Moderna (8 per cent) and Johnson & Johnson (7 per cent).
Fearne urged people who have not yet been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible.
Walk-in vaccination clinics, as well as mobile clinics, will open to the public as of Monday, July 19. Vaccination at these clinics will be open to anyone without an appointment, against proof of residence such as an ID card or utility bill.
New travel rules on Wednesday
Fearne's press conference comes one day before new travel rules related to the COVID-19 pandemic come into effect.
Malta is the only EU member state to make vaccination a mandatory prerequisite for entry into the country, and the decision has drawn criticism at EU level with a Commission spokesperson saying it may be discriminatory.
A legal notice that will serve as the legislative basis for that new rule had yet to be published as of the time of writing.
Fearne defended the decision to enforce vaccination for travellers, saying that while the vast majority of Maltese were now vaccinated, it was important to ensure that those who entered the country were similarly protected.
No further measures planned
No further restrictions are being contemplated at this stage, the minister said in response to questions, and measures would not be tightened for as long as the number of patients remained low, he said.
Authorities are currently looking into whether a booster vaccine dose will be required. The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is currently saying no booster is needed, though Fearne said authorities would also be looking at local data before taking a decision, given Malta's high rate of community vaccination.
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