Vaccine hesitency is “very limited” in Malta with the vast majority of those eligible for inoculation taking the jab, public health chief Charmaine Gauci said on Friday.
“We're doing very well when it comes to uptake,” Gauci said in response to a question during her weekly COVID-19 briefing, noting that Malta had a very good track record when it comes to uptake of other vaccines, too.
"People understand the need to take the vaccine," she said. Gauci did not provide any figures concerning vaccine uptake or refusal.
Just under 265,000 vaccine doses have been administered so far, with more than 80,000 people fully vaccinated. Authorities are currently vaccinating people aged 50 to 59, with anyone aged 60 or older who has yet to receive a vaccination appointment urged to contact a helpline by dialling 145.
People aged between 50 and 59 can register for vaccination either online or by sending an SMS to 99180045 (Malta) 99180044 (Gozo) with the message including their ID card number and letter.
“Vaccines are safe and of good quality. We are already seeing the number of cases decrease,” she said in a plea for people to get themselves vaccinated.
"All medications have slight side-effects," Gauci said. "The side effects of COVID are much worse than the side-effects of the vaccines."
Local authorities would abide by European Medicines Authority guidelines when it came to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, she said. Vaccination target dates have been set without this vaccine being included in calculations, Gauci said.
The vaccine's rollout is currently on pause across Europe, as regulators in the US assess potential links between it and blood clotting.
'We have reached a plateau'
Gauci's Friday briefing came as healthcare authorities said just 27 new COVID-19 cases were detected on Thursday - the lowest daily tally since September 30, 2020.
The seven-day moving average of new COVID cases has decreased once again and now stands at 50, down from 55 the previous week. The average age of new patients detected this week was of 39.
Patients are becoming younger in age, as older cohorts are vaccinated, with Gauci noting that a good number were aged between 25 and 30.
“We have reached a plateau of cases,” Gauci said, as she noted that the positivity rate - the percentage of swab tests that result positive - has declined to 2.6 per cent.
"Cases are gradually declining. When we reopen further, cases may rise slightly but it’s important to keep these numbers low," she said.
What virus variants have been detected?
The UK variant of the virus continues to be the biggest concern locally – 75 per cent of new cases reported this week are of that variant.
Just four cases of a South African variant have been detected, with none of a variant originating in Brazil.
How many patients are in hospital?
Gauci provided a breakdown of hospitalised cases.
Nine patients are in intensive care. For the first time since it opened, not a single patient is being cared for at the Good Samaritan long-term facility.
Mater Dei ITU: 9
Mater Dei IDU: 8
Other Mater Dei wards: 21
Good Samaritan: 0
Boffa Hospital: 9
Gozo General Hospital: 1
St Thomas Hospital: 9
Karin Grech: 11
Mount Carmel Hospital: 1
Where are new cases being linked to?
Household transmission continues to be the most common method of infection, according to data gathered by authorities, with foreign-imported cases and workplaces also accounting for a good number of new cases.
Social gatherings: 29
Homes and institutes: 15
Sports activities: 0
COVID app to work across EU
A COVID alert smartphone app that keeps track of people you come in close contact with to better detect possible virus exposure will soon work across the EU, Gauci said.
The app – COVID Alert Malta – uses Bluetooth technology to identify whether a person has come into contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19. Just over 20 per cent of the population has downloaded the app so far, with 2,845 people contacting a COVID helpline after the app flagged a potential infection.
The app will now become interoperable with similar apps in 16 other EU member states, meaning a person with the app who comes into contact with a tourist who subsequently tests positive will also be alerted – provided that the tourist is also using their country’s version of a COVID tracking app.
The app will work in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Lativa, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia, and Spain.
Gauci urged people to download the app if they have not yet done so, and said the interoperability function will become functional following an app update.
The app was developed thanks to a €150,000 EU grant.
Elderly patients and schools
With 96 per cent of senior citizens vaccinated, infection numbers have plummeted at care homes. Gauci said just three people there tested positive for the virus this past week, with all of them asymptomatic and none requiring any hospital care.
No clusters of infection have been linked to schools so far, Gauci said. Primary schools reopened on Monday, with middle schools following on Wednesday and senior school students returning to classrooms on Friday.
Gauci urged people to stick to wearing their masks, despite the gradually warming weather. Masks are crucial to limiting transmission, she said, and social distancing remained extremely important.
Gauci reassured couples hoping to tie the knot that authorities were trying to determine when it would be possible to allow weddings to take place once again. Prime Minister Robert Abela has previously said that weddings may be allowed as of June 1.
Authorities will be issuing standards which wedding organisers will have to abide by, once the celebrations are allowed. Civil or church ceremonies are still permitted, she noted, provided they abide by public health protocols.
Malta started implementing its reopening plan this week, with a gradual return to classrooms for schoolchildren, residents at care homes allowed visitors and elective surgeries at Mater Dei Hospital resuming.
Non-essential shops and services will reopen for business on April 26, with sources saying that authorities plan on allowing restaurants to reopen in mid-May. Bar owners will have to wait, however: there is still no indication when they will be allowed to welcome patrons once again.
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