BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei is bracing for record numbers of COVID-19 infections with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, but the government has no plans to tighten movement restrictions.

Speaking at the COVID-19 press briefing on Monday, Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said the public should prepare for a surge in coronavirus cases as genome sequencing indicated that the highly transmissible Omicron is replacing Delta as the dominant strain.

The Omicron variant — first detected in Brunei last December — has sparked a third wave of infections, with new cases increasing nearly five-fold last week.

The vast majority (97.5%) of the 1,371 new coronavirus infections confirmed over the past seven days were local transmissions.

YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said the number of COVID cases in the third wave is expected to surpass the second wave’s total tally.

However, the minister foresees fewer intensive care patients as Omicron is believed to cause milder symptoms compared to the Delta variant.

All 159 Omicron cases confirmed thus far were either asymptomatic or exhibited mild symptoms, he added.

Asked whether there are projections on when will the current wave peak, the minister said it usually takes two to three weeks before Omicron-driven infections peak, based on other countries’ experiences.

On Monday, Brunei recorded over 300 new COVID cases for three consecutive days, compared to a weekly total of 281 infections at the end of January.

Despite the jump in coronavirus cases, YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said more stringent curbs will not be imposed as they “will not have a significant impact on the increase in cases”.

“COVID-19 will be with us, and we have to live with it,” he added.

The government lifted most public health control measures after entering the “early endemic phase” of its COVID-19 recovery plan on December 15.

Under the early endemic phase, health authorities will place greater emphasis on the hospitalisation rate and number of critically ill patients.

The bed occupancy rate climbed from 9.3 percent at the beginning of last week to 26.3 percent on Monday.

One double-vaccinated patient is currently receiving treatment in the intensive care unit.

“Even though cases are rising, we have to look at [those in ICU]. That’s our focus. If [ICU patients] are increasing and affecting the healthcare system, then we might think of ways to manage it. But there are no plans [to re-impose restrictions] yet.

“What’s important during the endemic phase or in this third wave is for people to follow [health guidelines] and take their booster shots,” the minister continued.

Some 42.4 percent of the population has received a third vaccine dose, far below the health ministry’s target of 70 percent by mid-February.

Commenting on the slow uptake of booster jabs, YB Dato Dr Hj Md Isham said the public should not believe fake news on vaccines and refer to credible sources instead.

No super-spreader event or major school clusters in third wave

Asked if any super-spreading events had been identified in the third wave, the minister said none of the 55 active clusters evolved from a single public event.

“However, the public need to understand that Omicron will spread faster than Delta, so the number [of cases] will most likely increase,” he said.

Only three of the 55 active clusters were linked to public places – Al-Afiah Hotel, Hua Ho Tanjong Bunut Bakery and Baiduri Bank headquarters. The remaining clusters involved private residences and staff quarters.

Meanwhile, 200 students from 116 schools and higher education institutions have tested positive for COVID between January 31 and February 7, but none were infected in the school setting.

Daycare centres allowed to operate at 80% capacity

The minister of culture, youth and sports said children aged one and above can be sent to daycare centres, which will be permitted to operate at a maximum capacity of 80 percent from February 10.

Joining the health minister at the COVID news conference, YB Dato Hj Aminuddin Ihsan POKSMDSP Hj Abidin said only child care centres that have met health protocols will be allowed to raise their attendance capacity.

Daycare centres were given the green light to resume operations last month after a five-month closure, with attendance capped at 30 percent and restricted to children aged two and over.

The minister said 25 of 46 registered child care centres have reopened and 247 children were enrolled in daycare centres across the country.

He added that no positive antigen rapid test results were reported among carers and children at daycare centres so far.