Some 85% of people recently diagnosed with COVID-19 showed no symptoms other than, possibly, a cough and runny nose, and many had actually been about to travel, the superintendent of public health said on Monday.
Charmaine Gauci told Times of Malta’s Ask Charmaine programme that the new Omicron variant has still not been found in Malta but the expectation is that it will be identified very soon.
Sequencing took five days, she explained, and therefore she could not rule out that the increase in virus cases in the past few days was caused by Omicron.
But there were also other reasons for the increase, including the fact that more people were gathering and socialising. The authorities were seeing more infections among households, with the infection spreading before the carriers knew about it, she said. There were also quite a number of workplace cases, especially in closed environments where masks were not worn.
Asked whether more restrictions were to be expected, Gauci said the situation, especially in hospital was being closely monitored. The good news was that take-up for the highly-effective booster shots was very good. Although the number of COVID-19 cases in hospital had gone up, a significant proportion of those patients had not been admitted because of coronavirus, but other causes.
The majority of virus patients in hospital were aged 24-49, an age group which had not been given the booster jab yet. It was for that reason too that none of the ITU patients was aged over 60.
She said the number of hospital cases – currently 42 – was expected to increase in the coming two weeks. But she appealed to people even having minor symptoms, to come forward and get tested to prevent spread.
Mitigation measures – keep your mask on
The authorities, she said, would continue to ensure that mitigation measures were proportionate. While it was true that people had been complaining about mandatory mask-wearing outdoors, that was a small inconvenience to other measures, such as closing restaurants and curfews, that were being imposed abroad.
In Malta, the authorities were requiring mask-wearing even by people out on their own, or with their families, because the likelihood that they would meet somebody else was high, she said.
Will schools reopen in the next term?
Asked by Times of Malta news editor Diana Cacciottolo whether schools would reopen in the next term, Gauci pointed out that children are being vaccinated now. And no major clusters – anything above five – had been found in schools, because mitigation measures there were working.
The fact was that children were not being infected in schools and passing it to the community, but the other way around.
She underlined the need for children, even those aged 5-11 to be vaccinated once parents received their invitations. This prevented any possible severe complications from COVID – although none had been seen in Malta so far. And vaccines also reduced the likelihood of children being infected and then also requiring their classmates and families to quarantine.
Imported cases only 6% of the total
Asked if Malta would require negative swab tests for travel arrivals, Gauci said Malta was among the first countries to require arrivals to produce a vaccination certificate and that was more effective than a negative test result.
One could produce a negative test result, only to develop symptoms some days down the line, during a holiday, she said.
The effectiveness of the measures taken by Malta could be seen in the fact that only 6% of Covid cases had been imported. Nonetheless, the situation would continue to be monitored, especially within the EU.
Self-testing is not reliable
Asked if Malta would allow self-testing using later flow tests (rapid testing) Gauci said self-testing was difficult and unpleasant. As a result many people did not test themselves properly and the results were not reliable. People could have Covid and end up showing a negative result.
Tests would therefore continue to be offered for free in the various testing centres. They were also being made available by the private sector.
As for recent difficulties by some people to access the 111 helpline, she said the centre was swamped by people seeking clarifications after Italy introduced a test requirement for travellers a few days ago. More staff had been added to the helpline, but people were being asked to keep their conversations short.
Quarantine to remain at 14 days
Asked why quarantine was not reduced to 10 days after a negative test, as some countries had done, Gauci explained that there are some 5,000 people in quarantine at the moment, including those who tested positive and contacts. At the peak, there were some 7,000.
Quarantine had to remain at 14 days for those who tested positive because the characteristics of the new Omicron variant were not fully known yet. One could still have traces that could be transmitted.
Asked about people who tested positive immediately after taking the booster jab, Gauci said the booster did not have any virus particles, and those who tested positive probably had the virus before being jabbed.
“The vaccine does not give you COVID, but protects you from COVID,” he said.