The situation is “serious”. This is the word used yesterday by the Superintendent of Public Health, Charmaine Gauci, when asked about the new record of daily COVID-19 cases registered up to the morning.
The sheer number of positive tests is only part of the problem, however.
As the second surge of infections started to hit Malta in late July, fuelled by some rather questionable government decisions, the number of confirmed active cases was not reflected in any significant rise in the number of seriously ill patients.
Practically all those testing positive in those first few weeks of the resurgence were relatively young, active and healthy. Very few of those who attended large parties and risked travelling abroad could be considered vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.
That situation is changing rapidly, which is why Gauci is so concerned. Last week she flagged up the rising average age of those testing positive for COVID. Since then, there has been an alarming spike in the number of cases at homes for the elderly, with an unspecified number being added to that cluster from yesterday’s.
Meanwhile, the number of people being treated in hospitals and intensive care has risen as well, and several COVID-related deaths have occurred over the last four weeks.
Medical professionals had sounded a warning early on when it seemed that the government was not taking the second spike seriously enough. They were right: the infection has now spread like wildfire through several care homes, where the people most vulnerable to COVID reside.
The emphasis placed in some health department statements – that those who died had underlying medical conditions – cannot minimise their deaths. It only rubs salt into the wounds of the families who are mourning their loved ones. Those people would have been alive today without COVID-19, possibly with several more years of life ahead of them.
The clock cannot be turned back. The government’s task now is to ensure that a bad situation does not get worse.
The regular testing being conducted in all care homes is an important development. There is also a strong case being made, though, for isolating residents who test positive for COVID-19 in hospitals. This would make it easier to prevent the rise of further large clusters.
In less than two weeks’ time the schools will re-open. It is imperative they are well prepared to deal with the new reality, ensuring proper social distancing among both the pupils and staff. Staff must be briefed on how to recognise possible early symptoms in themselves and students. Parents must on no account send a sick child to school.
While studies have shown that the children themselves are at very low risk of coronavirus complications, they are transmitters. After school, children of working parents are often cared for by their grandparents, precisely the age group most at risk.
An aggressive education campaign is needed to raise sensitivity to these issues. This is doubly important now because the signals sent by those in power over the last few weeks have tended to be too weak and to minimise the seriousness of the disease.
Malta faces significant challenges over the next few months, especially going into the influenza season.
Those challenges can be surmounted only if all pull at the same rope, in a collective effort coordinated by a government that openly acknowledges the difficulties that lie ahead and sends out clear, consistent and effective messages to the public on the part it must play to prevent further spread.
If the government fails to do this, then the price already being paid will only get higher.
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