How prepared is Bangladesh for Omicron?

Many people in Bangladesh are wondering whether the country is prepared to deal with the Omicron variant of Covid-19, which has been taking Europe and the US by storm.

According to the latest data from the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC), the variant made up 73% of new Covid-19 cases in the US, marking a six-fold increase in only one week. Meanwhile, the European CDC in its weekly epidemiological update on December 19, said Omicron cases had been confirmed by 28 countries in the continent.

India has been witnessing a slow rise of Omicron cases, with over 100 already reported in the country.

On the other hand, Bangladesh is yet to face the brunt of the Omicron variant and has reported just two confirmed cases so far. Health experts have not ruled out the possibility of there being more cases in the country that remain unidentified, but they believe the Covid infection rate will be higher if the new variant has truly arrived in force. 

Bangladesh has maintained an infection rate of around 1% since October 30, but the number of Covid tests conducted dropped significantly when the infection rate began its downward trajectory, the experts added.

They noted that previous experience showed that waves of Covid-19 in Europe and the US took months to arrive in Bangladesh, so it was imperative that the government begin taking preventive measures immediately.

The need to take preventive measures is also reinforced by recent research in the UK showing that Omicron is at least as infectious as the Delta variant. The number of Omicron cases can double every two to three days once it arrives.

Veteran virologist Dr Nazrul Islam believes that a screening of travellers, increasing testing, regular genome sequencing, maintaining health rules, wearing masks, and preparing hospitals are some of the actions the government needs to take.

Eminent healthcare expert Professor Rashid E Mahbub said: “The pressure of Omicron will eventually fall upon the health care systems, meaning hospitals and clinics. So, they should be prepared well.”   

Current preparations

Dr Shahriar Sazzad, chief of the Dhaka airport Health Unit, said the unit was screening travellers carefully and sending passengers from countries with Omicron presence into institutional quarantine.

From early December, the government imposed restrictions on travellers from Omicron-confirmed countries or countries with local transmission.

Director (Hospital) Dr Farid Uddin Miah said government hospitals were previously asked to limit their Covid unit and resume regular duties, but they had also been asked to be ready to expand the unit again at a moment’s notice.

“We are keeping the Mohakhali Covid dedicated hospitals and the medical colleges on alert so that we can tackle the early stage of any surge and complete full preparations for the new wave,” he added.

According to the hospital director, almost all district hospitals have a central oxygen system right now, which is the most important requirement for Covid 19 treatment.

DGHS data show that the installation of oxygen systems is in progress in hospitals at Jhalokathi, Habiganj and Netrokona. However, hospitals in at least six districts in Chittagong, Panchagarh and Moulovibazar do not have the system.

Of the 1219 Intensive Care Units (ICUs) dedicated for Covid patients, only 115 are currently occupied. Furthermore, only 42 out of 708 High Dependency Units (HDUs) for Covid patients are in use.

Besides, the government has provided over 1,000 ventilators to hospitals at the upazila and other levels.

“The central oxygen system has been installed in over 130 hospitals. The process of providing required manpower is progressing well. Hundreds of ICUs have been installed in a year. This will help us to tackle the new surge. We are taking all possible preparations in health care management, although we don’t want any wave to emerge again, '' said Director Dr Farid.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Zahid Maleque at a program in Dhaka said the government was worried as people were not following health rules and this could lead to a surge in infections.

He also reiterated the country had a significant number of vaccines in stock, with millions more doses set to arrive soon.

“To keep our vulnerable people safe, we have started providing booster doses as well,” he added.

However, Dr Nazrul Islam said providing booster doses should not be the only solution, as unvaccinated people also needed to get the vaccine as soon as possible.

“We have to speed up the vaccination program in every way,” he added.

Patients’ rights movement leader and health expert Dr Rashid E Mahbub said the effectiveness of Bangladesh’s preparations would be determined with time.

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