TheJournal.mt reached out to the Superintendent of Public Health Prof. Charmaine Gauci for her take on how Malta has handled the pandemic, the success of the vaccination programme, and what she believes are the prospects for the new ‘normal’ post-COVID.
A fair assessment of the past year and half shows that Malta has kept the pandemic under control when compared to other countries. This pandemic required a strong sustainable strategy with the primary focus to save lives and prevent further spread at a time where evidence on the spread itself, changes in the virus, testing, management of cases and vaccine development was continually evolving. In the words of Prof. Charmaine Gauci, adopting preventive measures in line with emerging evidence was vital for controlling this COVID-19 pandemic. In her words:
“Strong leadership, collaboration between all entities, accurate surveillance and monitoring, ensuring sufficient supplies in line with modelling of what was to be expected, investment in human resources and training and above all, commitment of a dedicated workforce of front liners with a vision of saving lives kept the pandemic under control.”
The vaccination programme was crucial to controlling the pandemic. The vaccines have shown to be highly effective in providing protection against symptomatic and severe COVID-19. Prof. Gauci said the vaccination roll out has been very effective with a high percentage of the public turning up for the invitations, and more people registering since the vaccination was opened for lower age groups.
Latest figures show that a total of 42% of the 40-49 age group have already been vaccinated with the first dose. First dose coverage is high for older age groups with 94% coverage for those over 60 years and 67% for those over 50 years. Prof. Gauci understands that there may be questions or misconceptions on the vaccination programme, however designated specialists are there to address these questions in order to offer help and guidance, and at the same time address any misconceptions and misinformation.
Whilst the rollout moves forward at a steady pace, real life evidence is also showing that fully vaccinated individuals (which means those who have had two doses of the vaccine with two weeks post second dose), if infected, may be less likely to transmit the virus to their unvaccinated contacts. Although there remains some uncertainty due to emerging variants, Prof. Gauci believes “the prospects are good” and that the “vaccination leads to a new normal we can achieve”.
It is also worth noting that Malta has, historically, always shown a good uptake of vaccination. When one looks at the vaccine coverage for childhood immunisation, it clearly demonstrates the public trust in the vaccination programme and shows understanding of the impact of infectious diseases.
Furthermore, examples from countries with high vaccination coverages, such as the United Kingdom and Israel, provide an indication of how population-level transmission can be reduced when the vaccination roll out is scaled up and restrictions are released. This also leads to the relaxation of non-pharmaceutical measures including the wearing of masks by the general population, as further rollout progresses.
As yet, however, the interim guidance issued by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dated 21 April 2021, states that the wearing of masks must still be maintained in public spaces and in large gatherings:
“In the current epidemiological context in the EU/EEA, in public spaces and in large gatherings, including during travel, Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions should be maintained irrespective of the vaccination status of the individuals. “
The vaccine is highly effective and will undoubtedly help us fight the deadly virus, Prof. Gauci added. Although it may be difficult to accept another summer where packed venues aren’t safe options, there are still plenty of activities that can take place this year, which were high risk last summer.
“People can meet in small groups with precautionary measures and even better if all are vaccinated. One needs to focus on what one can do and not what on what you can’t do.”