Winter (Omicron) Is Coming — Dr Azim Nasaruddin

Variants like the Omicron were allowed to mutate because of vaccine inequity. The virus will continue to spread, thrive, and mutate among the unvaccinated.

The phrase “Winter is Coming” comes from the hit HBO show Game of Thrones. There are several meaning behind this phrase. Generally, the phrase is used as a warning and a call for constant vigilance.

However, as the show progressed, the phrase has been used to refer to the inevitability of the White Walkers returning in the winter, and a call for the realm to be prepared for it. Since there hasn’t been any confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in Malaysia, we must use the time we have to prepare for its arrival. 

The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 24, 2021. This variant has many mutations.

One of the most concerning ones is that one of the three target genes is not detected (called the S gene dropout or S gene target failure). Due to this, it has been detected at faster rates than previous surges.

The variant may have a growth advantage. Due to this concern, the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a Variant of Concern (VOC) named Omicron.

A few days after it was first reported in South Africa, multiple countries have reported the existence of the variant. To no one’s surprise, multiple countries have imposed travel restrictions, but what have the Malaysian authorities done?

We are now more proactive, instead of being reactive. Health minister Khairy Jamaluddin has requested additional allocations from the Treasury to boost the Covid-19 genomic surveillance capacity to monitor Omicron and other variants in Malaysia, finalised the Covid-19 Alert System, and have started to mobilise health care workers.

In terms of travel bans, Malaysia has joined other countries in banning travellers from several African countries, but are allowing Malaysians and permanent residents to return from those countries, with the requirement of a longer mandatory quarantine period in quarantine centres.

These initiatives are noteworthy, but extra suggestions wouldn’t hurt. As my old boss once said, “In medicine, we always have to expect the worst, but hope for the best”. Against a “growth advantage” variant like Omicron, I think it’s best we take extra precautions. 

Reach An Agreement With Contract Doctors

Almost 80 per cent of frontliners throughout this pandemic have been contract doctors. With rumours of #HartalDoktorKontrak 2.0 (with the threat of mass resignations) happening in December, the Ministry of Health (MOH) needs to deal with their grievances as soon as possible.

Almost every day, we hear of contract doctors leaving public service. Only this year, it has been reported that 514 contract medical officers have resigned. The MOH needs to retain their services, if the Omicron variant should cause a surge in the future. 

With more manpower at their disposal, a special team of medical officers and other health professionals from every state should be formed, ready to be assigned when needed.

The accommodation and transportation arrangements for this team must be prepared by the MOH. It may seem overdramatic to have such a team, but this is prudent, considering that last year, health care workers were hardly given any time to report to other states for Covid-19 duties.

Of course, social media was filled with their complaints, given that no time was allocated for them to be physically and mentally ready. This should not be repeated. 

Ventilation Support And Intensive Care Units

How well prepared are the public hospitals in terms of ventilation support, oxygen tanks and corticosteroids? If an Omicron wave happens, will we have enough beds in the ICUs?

Should we start readying quarantine centres for patients in Categories One and Two? Have we forgotten those terrifying videos that came out of Hospital Tengku Ampuan Rahimah in Klang?

Partnership With Private Hospitals

The private hospitals have always been ready to help in this war against Covid-19. Are further discussions needed with them?

Adequate Warnings

The MOH needs to remind the public to be constantly vigilant, have frequent updates about Omicron, and update everyone about public health surveillance measures. The people must always be alert and mentally ready. Complacency is something we cannot afford.

The current initiatives and efforts done by the MOH to not create panic among the public are to be applauded.

According to the WHO, “initial reported infections were among university students — younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease — but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks”.

Along with studies on the severity of Omicron, scientists around the world are also conducting studies on the effectiveness of prior Covid-19 infections, vaccine efficacy, and possible treatments.

Hopefully, we will come to have a better understanding of this new variant in the next few days. Another lockdown will not be feasible, since we have a better understanding of the virus, and can formulate better therapies and strategies against it.

As we saw from this year’s lockdown, it didn’t do much in slowing the spread, with daily cases and positivity rates at all-time highs, but it might have bought us some time to vaccinate Malaysians.

However, since Malaysia has achieved a high vaccination rate, there isn’t a need to buy any more time. We should use the time we have to prepare now, and not when the virus arrives here.

We need to apply what we have learned from the mistakes and shortcomings of the past two years. Another lockdown means a failure to prepare by the government 

In the meantime, what can the public do? The WHO has recommended these steps to reduce the spread of the virus:

  • Keep a physical distance of at least one metre from others.
  • Wear a well-fitting mask.
  • Open windows to improve ventilation. 
  • Avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces.
  • Keep hands clean.
  • Cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue. 
  • Get vaccinated. 

With Omicron detected in countries in Asia, Europe, and Australia, it’s just a matter of time before it arrives in Malaysia. Whatever the case may be, we still have the power to stop the spread by following the steps mentioned above.

For those who haven’t gotten their vaccine, please do. Variants like the Omicron were allowed to mutate because of vaccine inequity. The virus will continue to spread, thrive, and mutate among the unvaccinated.

We must stop the cycle of mutation, and for now, the best solution is for everyone to be vaccinated. Let’s hope it won’t be too late. Stay safe.

Dr Azim Nasaruddin is a medical officer from the Clinical Research Centre at Cheras Rehabilitation Hospital.

  • This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.

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