JAKARTA - Cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant across Indonesia have tripled in a week, with about 90 per cent imported, prompting the government to appeal for the suspension of overseas leisure trips.
The number of cases reached 414 as at last Saturday (Jan 8), the health ministry said on Sunday. This compares with 136 at the end of December.
Most of the cases were Indonesian nationals and those who have been fully vaccinated, according to the ministry. The bulk of the travellers who tested positive for Omicron returned from Turkey, with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia also prominent destinations.
"Avoid being (caught) off-guard and do not let a third wave hit us," health ministry Covid-19 spokesman Sini Nadia Tarmizi said on Sunday.
She noted that the spread of Omicron in Indonesia has continued to intensify since the first case was confirmed on Dec 16.
The country has frequently seen a surge in infections after holiday breaks, including the Hari Raya holiday in May when millions ignored official warnings and travelled around the vast archipelago.
Infections and deaths then skyrocketed, pushing hospitals and healthcare workers to the limit and causing oxygen shortages. This was the country's second coronavirus wave after a smaller-scale one in January and February.
Today, many parts of Indonesia have gradually moved towards normalcy after the country managed to bring the situation under control.
Like in other nations, Omicron in Indonesia has been less severe but is more transmissible, epidemiologist Windhu Purnomo of the University of Airlangga noted, but warned that every single case detected represents only the tip of an iceberg.
Many of the infected are asymptomatic or show mild symptoms, and do not report to the authorities or go to a health facility. Dr Windhu told Jakarta-based Elshinta radio: "There are so many Omicron cases that have not been detected."
The health ministry's Dr Nadia said the government has pledged to track Omicron, with the authorities closely screening travellers returning from overseas and stepping up contact tracing. The current policy does not allow any Omicron-positive case to self-isolate.
"If we do not do restrictive measures, the spread would be very fast… We expect people to hold off their plan if they want to travel overseas," Dr Nadia added.
The government is anticipating a possible surge in Omicron cases at the end of January that could lead to an intense but short-lived wave.
Last week, news about popular singer Ashanty testing probable Omicron-positive upon return from Turkey spurred an uproar, with many lambasting her ignorance of the variant's potential peril.
Ms Ashanty, who travelled with her husband, their children and an in-law, defended the trip on her social media page. She said it was not a pure vacation, as the family was seeking medical treatment in Turkey, and that the visit had been planned long before news of Omicron emerged.
The Straits Times understands the government has been distressed by the recently increasing number of celebrities and social media influencers travelling overseas, including to Turkey and the United States, and actively posting photos and videos on their Instagram and YouTube accounts.
Meanwhile, BPOM, the Indonesian equivalent of the US Food and Drug Administration, issued on Monday emergency use approval for five Covid-19 vaccines to be used for booster shots that Indonesia plans to roll out on Wednesday.
These will be for cities and regencies that have at least a 60 per cent vaccination coverage.
The five vaccines are CoronaVac by China's Sinovac, Zifivax (China's Anhui Zhifei Longcom), Vaxzevria (Britain's AstraZeneca), Spikevax (US' Moderna) and Comirnaty (US' Pfizer).