GEORGE TOWN: It is inevitable for the government to decide on the withdrawal of the face mask mandate for enclosed spaces after two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, a virologist said.
Universiti Sains Malaysia's Dr Kumitaa Theva Das said it was expected and inevitable for this transition to occur after two years.
She said there were many aspects that would make the removal of the mask mandate manageable -- Malaysia's daily Covid-19 cases had plateaued and remained at about 2,000 a day, hospitalisation had decreased and a large number of people had been vaccinated and boosted.
This afternoon, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin announced that based on the current climate of Covid-19 in Malaysia, the wearing of face masks in enclosed spaces was now optional.
He however said the wearing of face masks remained necessary in public transportation, when having symptoms, and at health facilities.
On April 1, Malaysia entered the endemic phase following the effectiveness of public health preventive and control measures, including the Covid-19 vaccination programme.
Exactly a month later, the country did away with the requirement to wear masks in outdoor settings.
"This is a global trend as well, so that also means we have less to worry about externally. Our neighbouring country, Singapore, also loosened their mask mandate recently and had not seen a sudden spike. And this is most likely what we will see as well.
"That said, we can still take a cautious approach. If you are in a crowded place like a mall, in healthcare facilities, in the elevator or using public transport, it will be safer to mask up.
"Throughout the entire pandemic, so much information has been given and I believe that everyone will be able to make an informed decision.
"There will definitely be a lot of people who will not be keen to ditch their masks yet because they may not feel comfortable and want to safeguard their own health and their family's, and that is completely okay. People should not feel pressured to remove their masks if they don't want to.
"With the loosening of each mandate, it boils down to trusting each other to make good decisions to protect ourselves and our community," she told the New Straits Times in an interview today.
Dr Kumitaa, a geneticist with USM's Infectomics Cluster, Advanced Medical and Dental Institute, said staying up-to-date with vaccines and boosters reduced the risk for infection and its severity drastically.
She said it also reduced the risk of long Covid, which could leave long-lasting effects on the brain, heart and lungs.
"We want to ensure that our immune system is prepped and ready to fight the virus. Our immunity does wane over time, so what this means is if it has been a few months since we received a vaccine, we are less protected.
"While there may be slightly different opinions on when a second booster should be administered, in general, for those 50 years old and above, they can receive a second booster four months after their first booster.
"People with moderate to severe immunosuppression are also eligible to receive an additional shot, regardless of their age. There are also frequent travellers who opt for a second booster as travelling may put them at higher risk," she added.
Dr Kumitaa said a Pfizer/BioNTech 'bivalent' booster, which triggers a stronger immune response against targetting original and Omicron variants, had also been recently approved by various countries and may be available soon.
According to her, for those who are keen to get the bivalent booster instead, something to bear in mind is that those who received their initial vaccine or a booster should wait at least two or three months before getting the updated booster.
Getting the new booster too soon, she noted, could limit its effectiveness.
The delay, she further stressed, also reduced the chance of side effects.
Meanwhile, she said the Covid-19 numbers had plateaued not only in Malaysia, but in other countries as well.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported a 16 per cent decrease in cases this week.
BA.5 Omicron still remains the dominant variant, and while there has been a slight increase of BA.2.75 in certain countries, there is still a low prevalence globally.
"To put it into context, these are signs that we probably can breathe a sigh of relief and that there may be no new variant as a threat.
"Of course, this is not to say that if someone has symptoms, they can just assume it is not Covid. It can still be Covid and we will still need to get tested. Overall, people are testing less, which is also why we are seeing a decrease in cases.
"We definitely still need to be mindful that we are not completely out of the woods. But we are getting there, and it is because of every individual's effort of staying home, or isolating, or getting tested and vaccinated, that has brought us here today," she said.
According to Dr Kumitaa, the risk for the elderly, the immunocompromised and vulnerable groups will always be high.
"This is true for any illness, including Covid-19. In Malaysia, almost 70 per cent of Covid-related deaths have happened in those 60 years old and above. This is also the group where there is a bigger reduction in immunity, especially if they have not gotten their second booster, or it has been more than three months since they got their last vaccine or booster shot.
"While for many of us, loosening of rules and mandates means being able to live our lives as normal, we do have to be especially mindful of the risk that we may bring to others who may not be as healthy as us.
"So, practices such as testing before visiting our family or before attending a big event or before going to a place where we might encounter the vulnerable population, is still crucial.
"The only way we can end this pandemic is by making sure we protect not only ourselves, but everyone around us as well, and knowing how thoughtful Malaysians are, we can definitely do this," she added.