Wasn’t that the whole point of getting vaccinated…?

Look at how we’re all reacting, to what was ultimately both a predictable, and an inevitable, COVID-19 surge. We’re panicking, and reintroducing lockdowns, when the whole point of vaccination was precisely to make that sort of thing unnecessary, once and for all

Prof. Charmaine Gauci is administered her vaccine
Prof. Charmaine Gauci is administered her vaccine

Ever heard the argument: ‘You don’t need to be a Michelin Star chef, to be able to tell if food actually tastes good or bad…?’ Well, it can be applied to a whole bunch of other stuff, you know… like, for instance, numbers.

As some of you might already have noticed, I am hardly what you would call a ‘whizz’ at mathematics, myself. Yet I can still tell – even at a glance, sometimes – when a particular set of figures doesn’t quite add up.

Take the daily COVID-19 briefings, for example. Ever since the latest surge – caused, both predictably and inevitably, by our re-opening to tourism in June – the details have been restricted only to the following statistics:

> Number of new registered cases;

> Total number of active cases;

> Number of overnight recoveries;

> Number of swab tests carried out over the last 24 hours (plus the total number to date);

> Number of deaths since the previous day, and;

> Total number of vaccine doses administered to date.

Applied to today’s update, that translates into: 154; 782; 6; 3,353 (1,021,801); 0; and 351,395, respectively.

And… well, see what I mean? If I were a doctor, an epidemiologist, or a public health specialist – or virtually any other professional, involved in actually combatting the virus on the ground – I might actually file that sort of data under the ‘useful-to-know’ category.

But from the point of view of us lesser mortals? We, who are neither Michelin Star chefs, nor mathematicians, nor ‘experts’ in any other relevant field (other than Facebook commentary, of course)… what are we to make of this daily barrage of statistics?

Truth be told: not very much. In fact, those numbers tell us almost nothing at all, about the one thing that should really be of most concern to us: i.e., the actual, quantifiable danger that this latest COVID-19 surge poses to our health, our safety, and our livelihoods.

We know, for instance, how many active cases are ongoing… but we know precious little about the severity of those cases; nor – even more cogently – whether or not they risk overrunning our national health service.   

And yet, the experience of the last two years should really have taught us, by now, that there are only two statistics that are really even worth reporting at all. And I’ll take them one by one.

The first is the number of active cases IN HOSPITAL (and, even more importantly, in ITU).

This was, in fact, the message relayed by the Health Authorities from the very outset, way back in March 2020. Remember? The only truly important goal was to ‘flatten to curve’ (or, in layman’s terms, to ensure that Mater Dei’s Intensive Care Unit was not overwhelmed by the sheer number of urgent cases, all at the same time…)

It was also the single over-arching reason why government re-imposed a partial lockdown last March. Contrary to what seems to be a widespread misconception… it wasn’t because ‘new cases’ were numbering around 250 a day (reaching a record-high of over 500 on 10 March.)

No, it was more because – as so many doctors, nurses and medical unions/association had warned us, at the time - the ITU department was ‘dangerously close to overcapacity’.

Already, then, it can be seen that the number of new cases – on its own – tells us next to nothing about the severity of the Covid crisis itself. Coming back to today’s tally of 154, for instance: as long as they don’t require hospitalization (and even then, in numbers that our hospital can’t actually cope with); and as long as they self-isolate, to keep the virus from spreading further…. it matters little if they amount to 154, or a little less, or even a whole lot more.

And this, by the way, was applicable even back in the days before 80%+ of the population was fully vaccinated (let alone now, when ‘herd immunity’ stage has already been reached…)

But more of that in a sec. In the meantime, however, this all-important nugget of information has been curiously absent from the most recent press conferences: even if, prima facie, there is a very good reason to include it.

On the basis of the few details that have emerged so far – and also from other sources, here and there - it appears that the relevant figure is not all that very ‘alarming’ at all.

On July 7, for instance – at the start of the latest surge – three people (all unvaccinated, recently-arrived foreigners) were admitted to hospital; none requiring intensive care. The following day, that figure rose to seven – one of whom was transferred to ITU.

Today – almost a week later: when the number of new cases has more than tripled – I am told that nothing (or very little) has changed in that department. Barring any new development today: there are still only around eight people in hospital for COVID-19 – one of whom critical – out of a total active caseload of 782.

As far as I can see (though I freely admit there might be other things I’m not quite seeing, at the moment)… that’s not very much to get all panicky about, is it now?

Still less, is it any cause to be demanding the (umpteenth) re-introduction of a lock-down, in any shape or form. For once again; such drastic measures should only really be applied on those occasions when we totally screw up our handling of the crisis – as happened at the start of last summer; and again after the Christmas season – and certainly NOT at a time when our national COVID-19 strategy actually seems to be working rather well, thank you very much...

Ah, but for how long? Those eight hospitalized cases I mentioned earlier… how long before they become 18, 28, 80, 180, etc.?

Well… the answer depends almost exclusively on the second of those all-important statistics: the rate of local transmission (or, to use the non-layman’s term this time: the ‘R-factor’).

To be fair, however, it shouldn’t even be necessary to report: with enough background information, we should quite easily be able to infer it for ourselves.

If, for instance, alongside the ‘daily new cases’, we were also given an idea of where, and in what circumstances, the virus was contracted… we would be in a position to judge how fast, or slowly, COVID-19 is currently being transmitted within the community.

And once again, it seems that the prospects actually look rather good (at least, for the time being).

Even before the airport re-opened last month, there was already plenty of evidence that the national vaccination effort was starting to pay off. Between March and June –when, for obvious reasons, all new cases had to be considered ‘local transmissions’ – the number of total active cases dropped from well over 3,000, to only around 20… with just one, maybe two new cases a day.

So even the fact that this same statistic suddenly sky-rocketed to 170, within just two weeks of the first tourist stepping onto the Luqa runway… it tells us rather clearly that, this time round, most (if not all) of the new infections are being imported from overseas.   

And yes, that also includes the four known cases of the Delta variant (and with it, of course, the possibility of also importing other, as-yet-unknown mutations in future…) So I’m certainly not suggesting that we simply throw all caution to the wind, either.

But it does make a small difference, that we are now dealing with (almost) exclusively imported cases. For one thing – and without, for now, entering the merits of how it might impact the EU’s cherished ‘Freedom of Movement’ principles - it enables the Maltese government to try and limit the danger, by simply imposing a ban on all new unvaccinated arrivals.

Of course, we’ll still have to wait another couple of weeks (at the very least) to determine whether, or to what extent, this will actually work in practice. In the meantime, however: if the vaccination effort proves as effective today, as it clearly was between March and June this year – and, let’s face it, in theory it should work even better: given that a lot more of us are actually vaccinated – then that, too, should be reflected in those two all-important statistics I mentioned earlier.

In the end, we may even find ourselves facing a situation whereby the number of new cases keeps rising each week – possibly even exponentially, as happened in the recent past – only without producing the same overwhelming effect on Malta’s health services; without plunging the entire country into deep crisis; and without, ultimately, causing quite so many deaths.

And.. um… wasn’t that the whole point of our national vaccination programme to begin with? Isn’t that why so many us (almost 90%, by the time you finish reading this article) even consented to taking those two shots in the first place… so that we no longer need to panic, each time we are confronted with the inevitability of sky-rocketing COVID-19 cases? So that we can somehow return to a semblance of ‘normality’: which, for quite a few of us, actually means working again, after months of State-imposed unemployment…?

Yet just look at how we’re all reacting, to what was ultimately both a predictable, and an inevitable, COVID-19 surge. We’re panicking, when there is no cause whatsoever to panic; and we’re reintroducing lockdowns, when the whole point of the vaccination programme was precisely to make that sort of thing unnecessary, once and for all.

I don’t know… almost makes you wonder why we even bothered getting ourselves vaccinated at all…