In an exclusive interview with Khmer Times, Dr Christopher Tay, CEO of The Prestige Hospital and a pandemic expert, answers frequently asked questions about COVID-19, which has sparked fear among the Cambodian people.
KT: While working as the COO of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, you were on the frontlines during the SARS breakout in 2003. Can you compare SARS with COVID-19?
Dr Tay: Both SARS and COVID-19 are caused by the same family of viruses – the coronavirus – but they have different virus strains and do not behave in the same way. With SARS, we were able to see the symptoms of the disease within a 14-day incubation period and monitor how it spread. With COVID-19, however, even asymptomatic individuals who did not exhibit elevated temperatures, shortness of breath or coughing were able to spread the virus. Although COVID-19 is not airborne, close proximity with patients can increase chances of infection, especially through droplets from coughs. Despite these, we are now better prepared due to our experiences in dealing with SARS, MERS and other infectious diseases. COVID-19 also has a much lower fatality rate compared to SARS.
KT: There is no cure for COVID-19 at the moment. How could the infected recover?
Dr Tay: For SARS, when a patient’s lung tissues are damaged or scarred, the patient will collapse. COVID-19, on the other hand, is different. People diagnosed of the disease can recover if given the right care and support at the right time. Patients who find it hard to breathe can survive if we give them enough oxygen. This is crucial. But why are there so many deaths from COVID-19? Because the healthcare system cannot support the significant number of infected people. With limited hospital facilities, it is difficult to treat thousands of patients all at the same time. In most cases, COVID-19 patients can recover with treatment. It’s different, however, for patients with underlying health conditions like diabetes or respiratory diseases. Recovery for these patients could be more difficult.
KT: People still wear masks as protection although many experts say they should not wear them unless they are sick. What can you say about that?
Dr Tay: There is no proof that COVID-19 is transmitted via air but what spurs infection is close proximity. Wearing protective masks prevent the droplets from coughs to get into your mouth and also prevent you from touching your mouth with your hands. Though masks could protect your mouth, you also have to protect your nose and eyes.
KT: Is there an available vaccine right now?
Dr Tay: For now, there is no vaccine for the disease. Many countries may claim they have found the vaccine but vaccines are not developed that quickly. It may take a while because tests would have to be conducted as well as manufacturing of the vaccine.
KT: Do you think COVID-19 patients could self-medicate?
Dr Tay: Again, it depends with how mild or severe their symptoms are. There are different levels of infection. With some, it could be more aggressive. Those who experience extreme or severe symptoms require proper treatment and care. But, if they exhibit mild symptoms, they have better chances of self-recovery. That being said, they should not take such risk.
KT: Experts say COVID-19 has a two-percent fatality rate. Do you agree?
Dr Tay: I’d say it might be slightly higher than that – probably three percent, which is very low compared to SARS. In fact, even influenza has killed so much more people, but we do not talk about it.
KT: What is your evaluation regarding the Cambodian government’s response toward the COVID-19?
Dr Tay: I think the government has been doing a good job. From what I’ve seen, they are doing what they can and following the recommendations of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. As I look at it, I see that they have a good plan in place.
KT: Most of the cases in Cambodia are imported, causing people to have no confidence in the screening process at the airport and border checkpoints. What can you say about that?
Dr Tay: This has also happened in other countries. Some patients who contracted the virus were asymptomatic, which means they didn’t display the known symptoms of the disease like fever. That’s why it is important to look at travel histories. Countries have also closed their borders.
KT: What do you think Cambodians should do at this time?
Dr Tay: There are relatively fewer cases in Cambodia compared to other countries but I think the people still need to practice basic precautionary measures. They should wash their hands regularly, wear masks and see a doctor when they are sick. They should also avoid going to crowded places and refrain from travelling unless necessary. They need to protect themselves and those around them.
KT: How long do you think this crisis will last?
Dr Tay: That’s a good question! SARS lasted for about nine months. Of course, people may say it depends on the season, temperature and so on. These are only guesses. In Singapore, it is predicted that this could last for up to one year. But one thing’s for sure: there will be no treatment in the immediate future. We will see more COVID-19 positive cases.
KT: The WHO recommends testing everyone suspected of the disease. Is it possible?
Dr Tay: Ideally, everyone with suspected case of infection should be tested. But, the test does not come cheap. That’s why the government is currently testing those with travel histories to hard-hit countries and those who have been in contact with the infected. It is also the same in Singapore. Not because you have the flu, they would test you immediately. The test is very expensive due to the reagent used and the set-up cost. If you think you’re infected, I suggest you go see a general practitioner first. The GP will check, and if you have travelled to other countries or exhibit other symptoms of the disease, the GP will send you for COVID-19 testing.