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What we learnt from the three biggest COVID-19 clusters in Malaysia

What we learnt from the three biggest COVID-19 clusters in Malaysia

FILE PHOTO: Medical workers wearing protective suits pass by barbed wire at the red zone under enhanced lockdown, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia May 11, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng/File Photo

KUALA LUMPUR: COVID-19 first hit Malaysia on Jan 24 when three Chinese nationals tested positive. The ministry acted swiftly, putting the tourists on quarantine and taking them to Sungai Buloh Hospital, one of the seven COVID-19 hospitals in Malaysia for treatment.

The first wave which happened between Jan 24 to Feb 15 had a total of 22 cases. Twelve of these cases had a travel history to other affected countries. 

The country heaved a sigh of relief when there were no cases recorded for a period of 11 days from Feb 16 to Feb 26. 

However, things soon took a turn for the worse, prompting the government to declare a movement control order (MCO) starting Mar 18. The MCO is now slated to end on Aug 31.

There are now more than 8,900 cases in Malaysia, with 124 deaths.

Here's what you need to know about the three biggest clusters so far.

READ: ‘It’s a nightmare' says resident quarantined in Malaysia’s COVID-19 red zone worried over access to healthcare, fresh food supplies


Between Feb 27 to Mar 1, over 16,000 people gathered at a mosque in Sri Petaling for a religious gathering known as a Tabligh. About 1,500 of them were foreign nationals. 

The gathering eventually led to a much larger and more fatal second wave of cases.

Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, Malaysia's health ministry's director-general then said that the ministry was only made aware of the gathering eight days after the event on Mar 9, by his counterpart in Brunei. This was after a Bruneian national who attended the gathering tested positive for the virus.

Over 16,000 people attended the gathering which took place from Feb 27 to Mar 1. (File photo: Bernama)

The first case related to the cluster was detected on Mar 11. The first Malaysian to attend the event and test positive was a 60-year old man from Pahang who was detected on Mar 12. 

On Mar 17, the ministry announced the first death related to the gathering, a 34-year old man from Johor Bahru.

READ: Interstate travel resumes, more services reopen as Malaysia steps into a new normal

After recording 190 new cases on Mar 15, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced the first phase of the MCO from Mar 18 to Mar 31.

However, as the situation did not immediately improve, Mr Muhyiddin later announced four more phases of the MCO. By May 4, certain business sectors were allowed to restart operations. 

The Ministry of Health only knew of the gathering eight days after the gathering on Mar 9. (File photo: Bernama)

As the situation continued to improve, the government said that the MCO will move into recovery phase on Jun 10, where all businesses were allowed to resume operations under strict Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

Finally on Jul 8, after 3,375 people tested positive and 34 deaths, the biggest COVID-19 cluster in Malaysia ended, having recorded no new cases for over 28 days.

In total, over 42,000 people were screened for the cluster. It was found that 2,187 cases were asymptomatic.

Former health minister Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad told CNA that mass gatherings were a "perfect recipe" for spread and super-spreading of the virus.

“Any attempts at organising such gatherings must be thoroughly reviewed and stringent SOPs need to be applied and abided by the organisers. It is also important for end-to-end protocols to be strictly observed."


Over 24,000 staff and students from Tahfiz chools nationwide were involved in the screening and testing of COVID-19. (File photo: Bernama)

While the Tabligh cluster was making headlines, one of its sub-clusters was slowly emerging.

This cluster, which was actually triggered by attendees of the Tabligh gathering, later took on a life of its own. More than 24,000 teachers and students had to be isolated while 20,865 were screened for the virus. Over 700 of them tested positive.

The Tahfiz cluster first started on Mar 29 after 71 people from Maahad Tahfiz AnNabawiyyah in Hulu Langat, Selangor tested positive for the virus.

This eventually led to the government announcing an Enhanced MCO in several areas around Hulu Langat, where residents could not even step out to get food or necessities. 

To date, over 453 Tahfiz schools have been screened nationwide, and 733 teachers and students have tested positive.

The director-general in his Jul 24 press conference on Jul 24 said 635 of those who tested positive were asymptomatic. However, he said that there have been no new cases.

Although the Tahfiz cluster has not been declared as over, Tahfiz scjools nationwide have been allowed to reopen from July 15. (File photo: Bernama)

Although the cluster has not been declared as closed, Tahfiz schools were allowed to reopen on Jul 15.

COVID-19: Majority of infected patients linked to religious schools in Malaysia were asymptomatic, says health ministry

With regards to the high number of asymptomatic patients in this cluster, Dr Dzulkefly said it was important to carry out sufficient testing.

“Sufficient testing must be conducted to detect asymptomatic persons, as it has been proven that viral load of asymptomatic patients is at its highest a few days before symptoms appear. 

“So both testing and isolating are pertinent measures to be intensified and not reduced. But already we have heard of a reduction in testing. I've been told that testing is only at 13 per cent of our maximum capacity and mostly done by the private sectors,” he said


The highest number of cases at the Bukit Jalil immigration depot was 270 cases in a day. (File photo: Bernama)

Following a series of immigration raids that took place from the start of May, Malaysia announced a cluster of cases at the Bukit Jalil immigration depot on May 21.

In the first round where over 600 illegal immigrants were screened and tested, 35 of them tested positive. This is said to have led to a false sense of confidence that the cluster would not be something to worry about.

At that time, Dr Noor Hisham noted that the cases were already contained, as those affected were in a quarantine-like environment. He also said that there was a low rate of infection among those who were tested in the cluster.

READ: Malaysia reports 277 new COVID-19 cases

Not long after, it was announced on Jun 4 that 270 people from the depot had tested positive in a single day. That came as a shock to many Malaysians, as the country was seeing a steady decrease in cases with only 20 cases recorded on Jun 3.

To date, 649 people have tested positive out of the 1,661 tested at the depot. There were no deaths recorded in this cluster. 

As of Jul 23, the director-general has confirmed that there have been no new cases related to this cluster.

The cases in the depot were detected after a series of immigration raids. (File photo: Bernama)

Commenting on the detention centre cluster, Dr Dzulkefly said the government needed to take a public health approach and look at the health of the population as a whole, without any distinction or discrimination.

“It should not be in terms of non-nationals versus nationals, ending in fear of being apprehended. 

“Clusters in the Immigration Depot depicted the position of those migrant workers and foreigners, who feared being deported. Hence (they were) not willing to come out and be tested. Likewise, refugees also present a reservoir of potential clusters,” he said.

He stressed that until the government took an approach regarding it as a public health problem affecting the whole population, Malaysia will not be able to get rid of the virus.

This is simply because there will always be people who are not willing to come forward for fear of being detained or be sent back, he added.

Source: CNA/kd


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