Days after many people – including this newsroom – called for Malta to start publishing its daily COVID-19 vaccination numbers, the island’s health authorities did so. However, a problematic reality could soon be unfurling with this latest statistic… and it’s either an innocent oversight or a dangerous move towards government-sanctioned spin.
During her weekly press conference last Friday, Public Health Superintendent Charmaine Gauci promised that Malta would start publishing its daily vaccination numbers. On Monday, that pledge materialised in a new, redesigned version of Saħħa’s daily updates.
And while details on at least some of the newest infections disappearing, the page had added information on the daily deaths and the total number of vaccinations up to the previous day.
But as is the case with most spin, the potential issue here lies with something as simple as semantics. You see, those daily numbers aren’t the number of people being vaccinated, but the number of doses being administered.
For now, the difference between the two isn’t that large, but as more and more people start receiving the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (be it the Pfizer jab, the Moderna one, or any of the other vaccines which could end up being approved for use throughout the year), the situation can quickly devolve into confusion. And that confusion is only one step away from the chaos that could ensue.
Technically speaking, if we’re talking about doses administered and not people vaccinated, frontliners like IDU nurse Rachel Grech – who last weekend became the first person in Malta to receive the second COVID-19 jab – will be counted twice. There aren’t too many people like Rachel right now, but every day, that number will increase. And unless we get clarity in the statistics, all of these people will be counted twice, effectively doubling Malta’s true numbers.
This shouldn’t really come as a surprise. After all, for the last 10 months, Malta has been going through the same statistical problem, but with swab tests.
A cursory look at any Saħħa update will tell you Malta has conducted more than half a million swab tests since March 2020. But while that number definitely looks very impressive – and the island has indeed been on a rigorous testing campaign throughout the last year – the real number of people swabbed is definitely much smaller. Otherwise, every single person you know on the island – including yourself – would’ve been swabbed by now… and then some.
Anyone who ever tested positive in Malta (that’s currently over 16,000 people) will eventually use up at least three swabs – the initial positive one and the two negative tests required to prove they’ve recovered.
Then there’s all the employees at restaurants or shops who have been obliged to get frequently tested before facing clients, those who needed a negative result whenever they travelled abroad or landed in Malta, and those who decided to get swabbed every time they visited older and more vulnerable family members.
And that’s not even mentioning all the healthcare workers who have had to be tested multiple times in 2020, either because of their proximity to vulnerable patients or the frequency of COVID-19 infection scares.
Over half a million swab tests is an amazing number to keep touting… but it’s very safe to assume Malta has not tested that many people in the last year.
As it stands, Malta is reporting just over 1,000 vaccine doses per day. And while that thankfully puts us at the top of the global table as far as ratios are concerned, it’s what happens next which is vital.
Now that Rachel Grech’s second vaccine jab is already nearly a week away, Saħħa’s new statistic could easily spiral out of control. And with only four days since the new number started being published, spin’s potential danger has already started manifesting itself.
On some media houses, the number is already being reported as “people vaccinated”.
And sure, the latest number of 15,316 vaccine doses is currently very close to the number of people being vaccinated… but as more and more people line up for their second jab, what will happen when Malta administers tens of thousands of doses over half the number of people?
Malta’s health authorities might already have a complete contingency plan for all of the above. They might’ve seen this coming weeks ago and pre-empted a shift in how statistics are reported in the coming weeks. They might even have a specific plan in place to make sure there’s as little spin as possible when reporting health statistics.
But 11 months and 580,752 swab tests later, maybe we shouldn’t hold our breath.