Malaysian family infected with Covid-19 Delta variant despite staying at home since April

A medical worker administers a Covid-19 test at a testing site in Shah Alam on May 27, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (facing camera) visiting a hospital emergency ward treating Covid-19 patients in Klang, Selangor, on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin (facing camera) visiting a hospital emergency ward treating Covid-19 patients in Klang, Selangor, on Tuesday. PHOTO: BERNAMA

KUALA LUMPUR - Madam Noriah Bakar and her family have largely been in self-imposed isolation at home since April this year.

Despite this, the 36-year-old said her husband and two sons tested positive for the Delta variant of the coronavirus last week, as Malaysia struggled to contain a resurgence in Covid-19 infections in the country.

A record high of 11,618 new cases were reported on Wednesday (July 14), bringing the cumulative total so far to 867,567. On Tuesday, the country reported 11,079 new cases, the first time daily infections surpassed the five-figure mark.

"We're dumbfounded because since mid-April, my husband has only been out once to collect work documents, and I only left the house twice about three weeks ago for my vaccination appointment and to buy bread," the homemaker from Subang Jaya, in the state of Selangor, told The Straits Times.

"We rely heavily on online services for groceries despite it costing a lot of money, so we can't think of what we did wrong," she added.

Malaysia's health chief Noor Hisham Abdullah warned on Tuesday that the number of new cases could increase over the next two weeks as the highly infectious Delta variant, which can be easily transmitted by air, has been detected in almost every state.

First identified in India, the Delta variant is 55 per cent more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which originated in Britain and was itself around 50 per cent more transmissible than the first variant detected in Wuhan, China, according to the World Health Organisation.

Medical experts noted that the Delta variant has an R0 (R-naught) value or the average number of new infections generated by each case of five to eight while the original Wuhan one had an R0 value of 2.2 to three.

"It is likely that B.1.617.2 (Delta) will displace other variants as what has happened in other parts of the world, and that is a cause for great concern," Professor Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, the government's Covid-19 Epidemiological Analysis and Strategies Task Force chairman, told The Straits Times.

Apart from the emergence of newer strains, Dr Bulgiba said a combination of widespread community transmission, airborne spread due to poor ventilation and poor adherence to health protocols due to pandemic fatigue were among the reasons for the surge in cases around the country.

Malaysia has thus far recorded 273 cumulative cases categorised as variants of concern, of which 67 were Delta variant infections.

Covid-19 screening in the meantime has jumped by more than 30 per cent. Between July 6 and July 12, a total of 825,373 tests were conducted, 200,728 more than between June 29 and July 5.

Epidemiologist and biostatistician Kamarul Imran Musa, who is an associate professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia, told ST: "More tests lead to more cases, more transmissions lead to more cases. So to be more certain, we can look at the positivity rate. Unfortunately, since the last week or so, the positivity rate seems to be on the increasing trend which indicates increasing transmission."

Some states, such as Selangor, have recorded a positivity rate exceeding 10 per cent for seven consecutive days.

In an effort to curb the spread of the disease, several states and localities are now under an enhanced movement control order in which residents are not allowed to leave their homes except to buy essential items and attend to medical matters, including vaccinations.

"The only real long-term preventive strategy is vaccination," said Dr Bulgiba.

He said the Pfizer-BioNTech/Comirnaty and AstraZeneca vaccines work against the Delta and Beta variants after two doses, while a single dose does not offer optimal protection.

People queueing at Malawati Stadium Covid-19 Assessment Centre in Shah Alam, Selangor, on July 14, 2021. PHOTO: BERNAMA

Medical experts have suggested ways for the government to ramp up vaccinations, including by cutting the interval between doses for the AstraZeneca vaccine to four weeks instead of nine. Another measure would be having a mix of doses for the Covid-19 vaccine.

"I would strongly suggest that the vaccination rate be stepped up especially in high-risk areas to make sure that all eligible and vulnerable persons are vaccinated as quickly as possible. Selangor's vaccination rate is being massively ramped up but its two-dose coverage still lags behind Sarawak's," Dr Bulgiba said.

"One cannot deny that Sarawak is doing a pretty decent job of vaccinating its people despite the massive logistical challenges it faces," he added.

Based on the Special Committee for Ensuring Access to Covid-19 Vaccine Supply's website, a total of 50.2 per cent of the state's population have received their first jab, while Selangor's stood at 24.1 per cent.

Malaysia's record cases explained

New Covid-19 infections in Malaysia charted a record high for the second day running on Wednesday, hitting 11,618 cases despite a nationwide lockdown since June 1.

Most of these were reported in its most populous state Selangor, with 5,051 cases and capital Kuala Lumpur which saw 1,749 cases. Neighbouring Negeri Sembilan registered 1,537 infections.

Ramped-up testing, and the highly contagious Delta variant are factors that have driven the recent spike in numbers.

People queueing at Malawati Stadium Covid-19 Assessment Centre in Shah Alam, Selangor, on July 14, 2021. PHOTO: BERNAMA

Health Director-General Noor Hisham Abdullah has said that the emergence of the Delta variant as the dominant variant in the country, along with increased testing in lockdown areas, contributed to the record cases.

The Delta variant can spread faster via airborne transmission and has an infectivity rate of five to eight. This means that if the variant infects 100 people, they can pass the virus on to 800 more people in a very short period of time.

"We projected that the number of cases from July 3 will increase. It has been a week, and we anticipate that it will go up for a week or two, before we see cases stabilise," Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham said at a news conference on Tuesday.

"One of the reasons is because of the Delta variant. It is airborne and so the transmission is faster."

About 70 per cent of daily cases are from the Klang Valley - Malaysia's most populated and industrialised area covering the capital and most of Selangor - and Negeri Sembilan.

Large parts of these areas are under the tightest level of lockdown, with its residents subject to intensified testing efforts. The authorities have also stepped up screening on thousands of factory and construction workers here.

According to the Health Ministry, from July 6 to 12, a total of 825,373 Covid-19 tests were carried out, compared with the previous week where only 624,645 tests were conducted.

Experts told The Straits Times last week that lockdown measures must be complemented with contact tracing, speedier vaccinations and better data on the spread of new variants. Previous lockdowns also contained too many exemptions allowing industry to operate, they said, causing workplace transmissions to soar.

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