KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia expects to reach the peak of its record-breaking Covid-19 infection rates this month before the impact of the mass vaccination programme starts to show, as it enters a crucial period before a targeted reopening of the economy.
Ahead of the expected peak in nationwide infections, the federal territory of Labuan as well as the states of Sarawak and Perlis will move to the third phase of Malaysia's Covid-19 exit plan on Wednesday (Aug 4), effectively ending their lockdowns, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in a Facebook post on Monday.
The third phase allows most businesses to operate while retaining some Covid-19 protocols.
The three places have seen the number of Covid-19 cases falling recently due to high vaccination rates.
Government officials and leaders expect the same to happen in other parts of the country.
"I think we are getting to the peak (of infections), especially in Klang Valley. We will get to the peak in another week or more and then hopefully we will see the infection numbers changing," said Coordinating Minister for Immunisation Khairy Jamaluddin on Monday.
After a surge capacity operation in July to ramp up inoculations, the Klang Valley - Malaysia's most populous and also worst-hit region - has now seen 96.7 per cent of its adult population receive at least one dose of vaccine, Mr Khairy said.
Consisting much of Selangor state and the capital Kuala Lumpur, the Klang Valley is home to more than seven million people, or over one-fifth of the country's population.
The number of cases in Klang Valley has recently declined. The region, which used to account for 70 to 80 per cent of all new cases in Malaysia, on Monday had less than half of the total cases reported.
Labuan, off the coast of Sabah, has seen over 80 per cent of its adult population fully inoculated, resulting in daily cases dropping drastically from the hundreds to single digits, and the closure of a field hospital.
On Sunday, Sarawak said that there had been a noticeable drop in patients requiring critical care and hospitalisation in July, when ramped up vaccination saw 66 per cent of residents fully inoculated. Deaths had more than halved in the state - 45 people died of Covid-19 in July compared with 108 in June.
On average, over 80 per cent of daily new Covid-19 patients in Malaysia are unvaccinated. For patients who have "vaccination history", the health ministry does not specify the level of vaccination. Full efficacy of vaccines kicks in two weeks after the second dose.
Epidemiologists are more cautious about when the nationwide infection rates could fall, saying that a decline in cases would be more visible towards the end of August and beyond.
"One also needs to remember that a sufficiently large proportion of the population needs to have received two doses and we need to wait at least two weeks in order for optimal immunity. This is not likely to happen soon enough for new cases to show consistent declines within the next one month," said Professor Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, chairman of the Covid-19 Epidemiological Analysis and Strategies Task Force.
Universiti Putra Malaysia epidemiologist Malina Osman told The Straits Times that the decline will be a mixed pattern depending on vaccination levels in different states.
"For states like Selangor and Klang Valley areas, I would expect the cases will start declining once the full vaccination rate achieved 50 per cent and more; but some states like Johor, Malacca, Kedah, Kelantan, Sabah and Trengganu will show more new cases or clusters while their vaccination rates are still relatively at a lower rate," Dr Malina said.
Johor, Kedah and Sabah - three of the states with the lowest vaccination coverage - on Monday reported more than 1,000 cases each on the back of a recent surge.
Mr Khairy has said that 40 per cent of Malaysia's adults are expected to be fully vaccinated before its independence day on Aug 31. Currently, the country has fully vaccinated almost 30 per cent of its adult population.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that much of Malaysia could reopen for full economic activity by October. He is also set to announce certain relaxations for fully vaccinated individuals in the coming days, which would allow some economic activity to resume.
Malaysia reported 15,764 cases on Monday, down from 17,150 on Sunday and the record high of 17,786 cases on Saturday. There was also a record of 219 deaths on Monday.