GEORGE TOWN: While the Omicron variant may be less severe, the sheer volume of cases is likely to put huge pressure on the country’s healthcare system, experts are warning.

Hospital Raja Permaisuri Bainun infectious diseases physician Dr Steven Lim said the variant was 70 times more contagious than its Delta cousin.

“We are seeing a rapid spike in the infection rate of Covid-19 in almost every part of the world, largely due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

“The number of cases are sure to affect our healthcare systems,” he said.

According to the Health Ministry’s CovidNow portal, the national average hospitalisation rate is at 68.4% with a seven-day admission volume of 1,390 patients on Feb 10, compared with 916 on Feb 2.

Dr Lim said even though the spread of Omicron was inevitable, everything must be done to slow the spread to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed and to protect the high-risk population from Covid-19 complications.

He said two years into the pandemic, everyone should be wise enough to know the preventive measures.

“Physical distancing, mask-wearing, avoiding crowded or poorly ventilated areas and ensuring hand hygiene are nothing new, but they need to be adopted with individual discipline and social responsibility.

“Everyone should assume that everybody else is potentially infected and be vigilant in practising these precautions,” he said.

Dr Lim also encouraged the public to use the affordable saliva rapid test kits that are easily available.

He said interstate and overseas travel should only be done for specific purposes as the country cannot afford to face another movement control order.

Although the Omicron variant largely evades immunity from past infections or two vaccine doses, evidence has shown that vaccination still provides important protection against severe cases and death.

“Booster jabs will definitely help increase protection. Up to this point, the comparatively lower rate of hospitalisations and deaths from Omicron is in large part due to the high vaccine coverage among our population,” he added.

Universiti Sains Malaysia virology scientist Dr Muhammad Amir Yunus agreed that compliance with strict public health measures could help cut down the number of cases.

“With the resumption of normal activities, it could be extremely hard to contain the spread, but if people adhere to the standard operating procedure, the number of cases will surely fall,” he said.

Muhammad Amir also said employees should be given an option to work from home if the area they live in has a relatively high number of cases and if they are in the high-risk group.

Asked if interstate travel should be restricted, he said it was pointless now to restrict any travel as the virus was already all over the place.

“However, reducing travelling could probably help in reducing the numbers quickly or avoid any further increase.

“The most important thing is to look at our hospitals and closely monitor them for any sudden increase in admissions and use of intensive care units and ventilators.

“This could be an indicator of the severity of disease and whether it is dangerous.

“This will set off the alarm for drastic measures,” he said.