Inconsistent messages earlier in summer from sectors “outside health” claiming that “everything is under control” gave false signals that COVID-19 was over, a group of medical professionals, including Charmaine Gauci, have concluded.
In a paper published in the Journal of Community Health, five authors outline how mass events triggered Malta’s second peak in COVID-19 infections after the pandemic had been suppressed in Malta.
Gauci, the Superintendent for Public Health, together with doctors’ association head Martin Balzan, Mater Dei Hospital’s chief operating officer Steve Aguis together with Sarah Cuschieri from the University’s faculty of medicine and paediatrician Victor Grech authored the paper.
“Inconsistent messages were disseminated to the population from some sectors outside health reassuring the public that “everything is under control” and “Malta is open for business” gave false signals that COVID-19 was over and all touristic activities could resume without limitation,” the authors wrote.
They did not say which sectors “outside health” they were referring to.
Prime Minister Robert Abela was among those who in August, when the numbers had started to spike, had insisted that the situation was under control. Tourism Minister Julia Farrugia Portelli had also urged tourists to come to Malta, saying the country had "mechanisms" in place that ensured people's safety.
Since then and amid the spike in numbers, the minister has repeatedly faced calls to step down. She has dismissed such calls.
Back in July, Malta had successfully brought the number of active cases down to a handful, with no new cases being detected for several days. But the situation changed overnight after a number of clusters were identified, with most of the patients having attended mass events.
In the paper, the authors note that a steep rise in daily cases was reported just 15 days after the first organised mass event.
“The R factor rose beyond 1 as the case load rose, with R transiently exceeding 2. This sudden surge in cases exerted additional strain on the public health authorities in dealing with the bombardment of calls by the public through the COVID-19 helpline, the number of swabbing requests by both symptomatic and concerned individuals along with the attempt to sustain a robust case management, contact tracing and follow-up,” they said.
Although mass events were the triggering factors to the resurgence of the virus in Malta, they said, by mid-August, it had become “obvious that a high community spread was present”.
Impact on the economy - a nightmare for tourism
The second wave also brought with it additional challenges to the economy, the authors found, even though the main reason for lifting the preventive restrictions was to re-start the economy.
“What was perceived as an economic benefit turned into a nightmare for the tourism industry as a substantial number of European countries (Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the UK, Slovenia and Switzerland) and the US labelled Malta as a “high risk” country.
On the way forward, the authors insist that protecting the health of the population “should take centre stage during these unprecedented times”.
“Ultimately, we are all in this pandemic together, and prevention, containment and mitigation along with public cooperation is the key especially with the influenza season around the corner.”
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