MP SPEAKS | The federal government and Health Ministry must increase our public healthcare and genomic surveillance capacity and ramp up Covid-19 vaccination exponentially so that we can proactively deal with the threat.
This is to ensure the prevention of an uncontrollable surge that will overwhelm our healthcare system again and cause unnecessary deaths.
Based on reports from the Health Ministry, 245 cases were detected in Malaysia, with 12 cases of local transmission, and seven cases reported on Jan 6 in Sarawak alone. This is of course a cause for concern as this may be just the tip of the iceberg due to the lack of genomic surveillance in our country as we are not sequencing every single case here.
While many reports have said that the severity of the Omicron variant may be milder, but its impact should not be underestimated, and we must not let our guard down and maintain our preparedness for fighting the pandemic.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday mentioned that Omicron should not be dismissed as mild, as people around the globe are still dying from the disease.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the record number of people catching the new variant (which is rapidly out-competing the previously dominant Delta variant in many countries) meant hospitals were being overwhelmed.
"While Omicron does appear to be less severe compared to Delta, especially in those vaccinated, it does not mean it should be categorised as mild."
So, in my view, if not properly handled, a full-blown Omicron wave in Malaysia where we will see a vertical surge of cases like in other countries, may even be more damaging than Delta.
We cannot just look at the severity of its virulence or the damage it causes to one individual, but more importantly, we also need to consider its impact on the healthcare system.
Due to the high transmissibility of Omicron, we may experience a high surge of patient volume in the background of already low healthcare manpower, where many are already suffering burnout due to the long period battling this pandemic.
When patient volume increases, inevitably the high-risk portion will require closer medical attention or hospitalisation which will swamp the healthcare system again.
When the healthcare capacity cannot accommodate the increase, it will result in sub-optimum care due to lack of manpower or medical equipment, affecting the prognosis of the patient.
This variant also increases the risk for healthcare workers to be infected causing the loss of manpower on the ground either from isolation, quarantine or hospitalisation. So this again will lead to sub-optimum care and thus result in higher chances of disease complications and death.
Ramp up booster campaign
That is why we must not let our guard down and really double down on vaccination campaigns and propping up hospitals as they confront a large influx of patients.
A “booster dose campaign” must be launched to exponentially increase our booster dose uptake to ensure the most vulnerable are getting the most optimum protection.
Currently, just 43 percent of those aged 60 years and above or 20 percent of total population are boosted against Covid-19 in Malaysia. Studies have shown Omicron causes three times as many reinfections as Delta. That is why the rollout of the booster dose and to cover those unvaccinated must be urgently prioritised.
A recent study in Malaysia shows that death rates are 43 times higher among the unvaccinated. Hence the government must also improve their risk communication and allay concerns of those still hesitant to take the vaccine or the booster dose.
Many of the hesitancy is due to mixing vaccines (heterologous vaccination) and is prevalent especially in certain elderly communities.
The rollout of boosters must also improve. Many turn up at vaccination centres (PPVs) to receive their dose, but due to lack of manpower and government assistance, many of these PPVs are often congested and many have to queue up for long hours even under the sun.
That is why I urge the Health Ministry to really step in and increase capacity to speed up the rollout process of the booster dose especially in view of the threat of Omicron.
Currently, there are about 1,500 general health practitioners (GPs) involved in the vaccination rollout out of more than 7,000 registered. More can be done to incentivise more GPs to be part of the rollout as well as set up more PPVs assisted by the ministry as how it was done before for the first two doses.
More must be done by the government to give assurance to the people that they are in control. New variants like Omicron are a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over and that is why we must remain vigilant and not be complacent.
DR KELVIN YII is Bandar Kuching MP and chairperson of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Health, Science and Innovation.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.