Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci has weighed in on a row between education authorities and teachers' unions, saying schools should continue to operate with COVID-19 measures in place.

In her firmest comments yet on the subject, Gauci told a news briefing that while health remains the main priority, the education of children was crucial.

"As health authorities, we hope school continues with mitigation measures in place," she said. "That way, children will get their education, albeit with protocols in place."

She reiterated the success of schools operating in previous months without adding to the spread of the virus.

Her intervention comes amid talks between the Malta Union of Teachers and the education minister after a two-day teacher strike over health fears.

Watch the briefing live below:

The MUT had accused the education ministry of failing to follow health advice by refusing to go online amid a record spike in cases after the Christmas holidays.  

On Friday, the high number of cases continued as 191 new cases of COVID-19 and two further deaths were announced: an 84-year-old woman at Mater Dei and a 77-year-old woman at St Vincent de Paul home for the elderly.

Of the 2,047 people with the virus, thirteen of the sickest patients are being treated in intensive care at Mater Dei hospital while 149 people are in other wards or hospitals across the islands. 

How is the virus being spread?

Gauci said that, "as expected", after the Christmas holidays, the number of people with COVID-19 increased. She said health authorities aren't seeing influenza cases this season, which have been instead replaced by COVID-19. 

"It is very clear that the cases were a result of the festivities and gatherings over the holidays," she said, predicting that the numbers could drop after the impact of these gatherings is felt.  

Households remain the largest cluster of cases, with 245 linked to people's homes. Workplaces, direct contacts and gatherings were also responsible for the spread. 

There are currently 114 active cases of the virus in Gozo - an increase from 87 last week. Only 16 people tested positive for the virus from the 2,678 people who were tested at the airport throughout December and so far in January, she said. 

A number of new cases have been detected in detention centres for asylum seekers but "only a few", she said.

The average age of a patient is 40, with mostly young people, aged 25 to 34 testing positive and deaths most commonly occurring among the 75 - 84 age bracket.

"Our appeal is to continue protecting the elderly," she said. "We know that young people are less likely to have complications but you have those people who meet up with the elderly anyway."

Will vaccine roll-out plan change?

She said that people were wanting to "go up the tiers to get the vaccination" but said health authorities were determined to follow their list, prioritising healthcare workers and the oldest members of the population. 

Gauci also warned against buying vaccines online, amid reports of this happening in Europe, saying the "only safe one" is that being provided for free by the government. 

No-one who has taken the vaccine so far in Malta has reported any side effects. "Those who took it, who have been working, got back to their day-to-day life immediately."

She also said any decision on increasing measures to curb the spread of the virus depends on the numbers of new cases.

"We will update the public when we think there is a need to step up measures."

Authorities are still waiting on results of gene sequencing tests to detect if there is a further spread of the highly-transmissable UK spread. 

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