KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 18 — As Malaysians ride the current Omicron wave, the possibility that we will have to live with Covid-19 as virus mutations continue is becoming more and more likely.
The thinking right now among epidemiologists is “living with the virus” is the next phase of this pandemic.
Experts also agree that the total eradication of SARS-CoV-2 may not happen in the near future.
Malaysia Medical Gazette managing editor Dr Khoo Yoong Khean said the fact that we all might have a brush with the coronavirus sooner or later, does not mean public health measures like wearing masks and social distancing should be abandoned.
He said how the pandemic pattern will unfold is still yet to be known ie whether it will be seasonal like the flu or geographical like dengue.
“The pandemic is still evolving with new variants and new information about the disease and virus. The new way of life now still could change and will probably change.
“We just have to keep adapting to the situation and not get blindsided by focusing too much on the term ‘endemic’,” he told Malay Mail.
As the number of cases continues to climb, many fear the return to lockdowns even as the government reassured that this would not be the case.
Chief executive officer for the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs Tricia Yeoh said that on the condition that the majority of the population has been vaccinated and also received their booster shots, the public must accept that Covid-19 is here to stay.
She added that blanket movement restrictions had dampened the country’s economic growth over the past two years and businesses cannot afford to go through another round of such measures again.
“What is important is to ensure that we carefully monitor the rate of intensive care units (ICU) hospitalisation, as this would be the indicator of a rapid escalation in serious cases.
“As long as ICU hospitalisation rates remain low, this means our hospitals will still have the capacity to cope with severe cases,” she said.
Earlier this month, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said the severity of Covid-19 cases in Malaysia is currently the prime concern rather than the number of daily infections.
Universiti Putra Malaysia epidemiologist Associate Professor Dr Malina Osman said that Covid-19 will continue to mutate but the severity of these variants can only be known after a while.
“Based on scientific findings, the virus will inevitably keep mutating. Whether it will cause severe illness in humans, or have a public health impact, we can only know after some time.
“But, I believe in general, with current Omicron which is not that severe compared to Delta, we hope it provides good sign paving towards endemicity,” she said.
When Malaysia’s daily cases had been around 22,000 last August, about 962 patients were in ICU with 470 of these needing respiratory assistance.
In comparison, on February 15 when Malaysia recorded 22,213 cases, only 194 patients were in ICU and 120 of them ventilated.
However, there is no one way of “living with the virus” as it all depends on our personal health status and those we live with.
Dr Khoo said that he was slightly less fearful of contracting the virus as he believed in the vaccine and knowing that there are now better treatment protocols.
However, he added that it does not mean that he is letting his guard down and will continue to comply with Covid-19 regulations such as wearing face masks and social distancing.
“But a big part of the anxiety is because I have an unvaccinated daughter (not eligible yet) and also two elderly parents in my social bubble.
“So my personal risk is low, but my actions still can expose them to unnecessary risks,” he added.
Those who do not have anyone with high-risk health conditions in their household may be a little more relaxed and go for more social activities while complying with standard regulations like wearing face masks.
Others will try to use self-test kits before attending family or other social gatherings. “This is not so much to protect myself but others. I would feel terrible if I was the cause of somebody else’s infection,” said a 40-year-old who has recently returned to an active social life.
Dr Malina said that following the current surge, Malaysians should continue to comply with the public health measures but once the majority of the country's population is vaccinated and boosted, the Health Ministry can consider relaxing SOPs like wearing of face masks and social distancing.
“In the current situation I would say we have to put on a mask vigilantly except during eating or drinking... any social interactions should be followed by pre- and post-screening, avoid unnecessary events which potentially draw a crowd and get the booster dose as soon as possible,” she said.