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Covid-19 expert group calls on govt to focus on targeted MCOs and speed-up vaccine roll-out to curb rising cases

KUALA LUMPUR (April 25): With daily Covid-19 cases persistently coming in above 2,000 since April 15, the Health and Sciences Covid-19 Advisory Group of Experts today called on the government to centre its mitigation efforts on targeted Movement Control Orders (MCOs), and to speed up the country's vaccine roll-out.

These are among its list of urgent recommendations to the government, said the group, which had a meeting with Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin on April 21.

Members of the group are Tan Sri Dr Abu Bakar Suleiman (chairman), Prof Dr Rosmawati Mohamed from the Academy of Medicine of Malaysia, Dr Mary Cardosa of the Malaysian Medical Association, Datuk Dr Fadzilah Kamaluddin from the Malaysian Public Health Physicians' Association, Datuk Dr Kuljit Singh from the Association of Private Hospitals of Malaysia, and Datuk Dr Christopher Lee from Infections Disease Physician.

"We wholeheartedly support the prime minister's decision to no longer enforce blanket MCOs as announced on April 17.

"However, the alarming number of positive cases — which is over 1000% higher than the number of cases reported this time last year — prompts refined mitigation efforts for preventing a fourth wave of Covid-19 in Malaysia. These mitigation efforts should centre on targeted MCOs with comprehensive digital find, test, trace, isolation, and support," the group said in a statement.

Highly targeted MCOs will minimise economic disruption, on top of reducing the spread of Covid-19, balancing the well-being of both lives and livelihoods, it said.

State and district health authorities must be empowered to work with external health experts to determine if an area should be put under MCO, it said. "The thresholds should be defined according to population density, number of cases, and geo-characteristics of the area, and communicated clearly to the public."

The group also urged the government to ramp up its Covid-19 surveillance by conducting mass targeted testing using antigen rapid test kits (RTK-AG), and to strengthen risk communication.

"Current testing guidelines which still require fulfilling persons-under-investigation (PUIs) and close contact criteria, may result in undetected sporadic cases in the community. Machine learning and artificial intelligence tools should be better utilised for predictive risk modelling and assessment to identify hotspots and risk areas even before an outbreak occurs," it said.

Meanwhile, the government should pivot its Covid-19 messaging focus on improving health literacy and transmission risks, in addition to standard operating procedure (SOP) compliance, it said.

"For example, the general public should have a better understanding of the risks of indoor dining and socialising in a confined space compared to visiting an outdoor Ramadan bazaar which abides by strict SOPs. A greater understanding of the science behind Covid-19 measures will boost public trust and offset some of the pandemic fatigue which has set in, thus improving SOP compliance in the long run," it said.

Boosting vaccine roll-out and combating hesitancy is another area the government should improve on, the group said.

It said "pop-up" vaccine registration and information centres can be established in high traffic public areas, such as Ramadan bazaars, shopping malls and office buildings, in collaboration with non-government organisations.

"These 'pop-ups' can also double as rapid testing centres. Additionally, national community engagement programmes for encouraging vaccine registration and combatting hesitancy among vulnerable and marginalised populations such as the elderly, orang asli, migrants, and the digitally illiterate must be urgently expanded," it said.

The group further said it is now in discussion with the Ministry of Health (MoH) on how to best operationalise the above recommendations and align them with the substantial work that has already been done by the ministry.

"While the MoH has shown leadership in managing Covid-19, the pandemic is a marathon requiring the contribution of experts including those outside MoH and citizens from all corners of the country for a real whole-of-society effort," it said.

Malaysia yesterday recorded 2,717 new Covid-19 cases, which raised its cumulative coronavirus cases to 390,252. The death toll from the coronavirus here stood at 1,426, or 0.37% of overall cases.

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