KUALA LUMPUR (March 23): Malaysia needs to have the Movement Control Order (MCO) for at least six consecutive weeks to bring down the COVID-19 infections to a manageable level, the New Straits Times (NST) reported today.

The report quoting epidemiologist Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud said there was a likelihood of at least four more waves attributed to mass gatherings held recently.

“We need six weeks. The 14-day MCO may be inadequate. If it is successful and we see a decline in new infections, we still need to extend it as we want the numbers to come down to zero or a number that is small and manageable. And that is not going to happen in two weeks.”

He said the waves were likely to come from the untraced thousands who attended a tabligh gathering at Seri Petaling Mosque in Sri Petaling here, those who travelled to Makassar in Sulawesi, Indonesia, for a similar assembly, the floating chariot festival in Teluk Bahang, Penang, on March 8, and the balik kampung exodus a few days ago.

The NST said the Universiti Malaya professor was concerned why the government was not actively seeking out those who attended the chariot festival as it reportedly involved some 30,000 participants.

Awang said the point of Malaysia’s method of testing was to identify clusters or large gatherings so that possible infections could be weeded out and contact tracing could begin.

“All of them have to be traced. We have to break the chain of transmission.

“If there are 30,000 people and we go by the conservative estimate that 5% of them are infected, that is 1,500, and under the reproductive rate of the virus, this could infect another 3,000 people (in the second generation).

“This is a conservative estimate for the tabligh gathering, where the infection rate was 10% based on its batch of samples.”

He said that was the reason why it was too early to say the disease was plateauing.

Awang told the NST that the surge in infections came from the massive drive to detect those who attended the tabligh event.

“Now that the numbers seem to have stagnated, the new infection rate is expected to plateau for a few days. But at this juncture, it’s premature to say so.

“If you follow the example of China, even when cases fell to zero, they waited for 14 days before they declared it was over because new clusters may emerge that are asymptomatic. They have to wait until the incubation period is over and no new cases appear.

“We just have to wait and see.”

On Thursday, Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba said COVID-19 cases in Malaysia were at a plateau, with no exponential increase.

A total of 153 new cases were reported on Saturday, Friday (130), Thursday (110), Wednesday (117) and Tuesday (120). A total of 125 new cases were reported last Monday (March 16) and 190 last Sunday (March 15).

On prevention measures, Awang urged the public to stay at home.

“We don’t want to come to (the situation of) Italy. I don’t want to sound like an alarmist, but we would head there if we don’t break the chain of transmission.”

Italy surpassed China’s COVID-19 death toll on Thursday. This has been attributed to its citizens’ refusal to stay home. Italy’s death toll stood at 4,825 compared with China’s 3,267 yesterday.

Virologist Dr Chee Hui Yee said there was insufficient data to show that the disease was plateauing.

She said the country did not have the capacity for mass testing like in South Korea.

“The number of positive cases is directly linked to how many tests you can perform and your lab capacity. If you have the lab capacity to run tests for 50,000 samples and staff working 24 hours a day in shifts, then you would pick up more positive cases in a day.

“The balik kampung crowd also needs an incubation period of five to seven, or 14 days. Some reports claim that it takes 27 days. So it’s preliminary to say it’s plateauing.

“We don’t know how the virus operates. The public can help by staying home. Lives are at stake.”

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