Experts in Malaysia sceptical after Klang Valley hospitals claim victory in Covid-19 war

Admissions to hospitals in the Klang Valley have dropped.
Admissions to hospitals in the Klang Valley have dropped.PHOTO: BERNAMA

KUALA LUMPUR - Hospitals in the Klang Valley in Malaysia are claiming victory in the war against Covid-19, with one doctor going so far as to declare that the floor is now visible because of fewer dead bodies.

But experts are sceptical, saying it is too early to tell if things have indeed turned around.

New daily infection numbers nationwide on Monday (Aug 23) fell to 17,672, but this went up to 20,837 the next day. Malaysia registered a daily record of 23,564 new cases on Aug 20.

The situation is worsening in a number of states, including Sabah, Penang, Johor, Kelantan and Perlis, all of which hit record highs for Covid-19 cases on Tuesday.

But admissions to hospitals in the Klang Valley have dropped. Tengku Ampuan Rahimah Hospital, which witnessed scenes of overcrowding in July, for instance, reported a 50 per cent decline in daily admissions this month.

But the number of patients in intensive care, and fatalities, nationwide have remained high, at 1,063 and 211, respectively on Tuesday. There were 40 brought-in-dead (BID) cases.

Professor Datuk Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, the government's Covid-19 Epidemiological Analysis and Strategies Task Force chairman, pointed out that the seven-day incidence density for Selangor and Kuala Lumpur has not changed much and was still hovering between 600 and 700 per 100,000 population.

"The seven-day Covid-19 case fatality rates for KL seem to have plateaued, so I hope the rates do not go any higher from here," he told The Straits Times.

"The only thing which appears to be getting better is bed utilisation as it appears to be decreasing in KL, Putrajaya and Negeri Sembilan. I am not sure whether this is due to the new policy of home isolation and virtual CAC rather than isolation in a hospital or due to fewer Category 3 to 5 patients (those more seriously ill)," he added. CAC refers to Covid-19 assessment centres.

The number of patients visiting CACs dropped by around 30 per cent to 50 per cent earlier this month following the implementation of virtual assessments from July 26. This allowed those who were asymptomatic or had mild symptoms to forgo a physical check-up and self-quarantine at home.

"I would therefore be a bit cautious and wait for a more sustained decline before concluding that things are already improving," said Prof Awang Bulgiba.

Professor Sazaly Abu Bakar, director of the Tropical Infectious Diseases Research and Education Centre at Universiti Malaya, said: "If the trend continues, perhaps it is true that things are getting better. But we need to keep up our vaccination rate to achieve 80 per cent of our population."

But there are also concerns over vaccine supply, with reported shortages in Johor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan.

As at Aug 18, Malaysia has received only 34 per cent of the doses it has ordered.

As at Monday, 56.9 per cent of the adult population have been fully vaccinated and 78.9 per cent have received at least one dose.

"I worry about the vaccination progress, especially in the Klang Valley, and this is probably the single most critical factor in determining how many cases we will be seeing in the weeks to come," said Prof Awang Bulgiba.

"The community that is being missed especially in the Klang Valley are undocumented migrants. Estimates of the true number of undocumented migrants vary widely. But I think it safe to say that infections among these undocumented migrants will form a very important continuing source of infection if we only vaccinate known registered migrants and Malaysians."

There are an estimated two million undocumented migrants in Malaysia.

Prof Awang Bulgiba warned that the number of BID cases, many of them involving foreigners, indicated that community spread was far greater than officially reported.

Earlier this month, a doctor posted on Facebook that front-liners were starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, as wards began to empty out.

"There used to be dead patients in body bags in between the patients who were still alive at the ED (emergency department), with canvas sheets everywhere. But now, you can see the floor," Dr Hana Hadzrami, an anaesthesiologist at the Kuala Lumpur Hospital, wrote in a Facebook post on Aug 14.

"We in the Klang Valley are starting to see a glimmer of light at the end of this dark tunnel. It's faint, but full of hope," said Dr Hana.

On Aug 18, health authorities said vaccines were preventing infections, and that at least 85 per cent of Covid-19 cases had experienced mild or no symptoms. On Tuesday, the figure rose to 98.3 per cent.