JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia is bracing for a third wave of COVID-19 infections as the highly transmissible omicron variant drives a surge in new cases, health authorities and experts said Saturday.
The country reported 11,588 new confirmed infections and 17 deaths on Saturday in the last 24-hour period. It was the highest daily caseload since August when Indonesia was struggling to contain a delta-driven wave.
Indonesia had recovered from last year's spike that was among the worst in the region, and daily infections had fallen to about 200 by December. But cases are rising again just weeks after the country reported its first local omicron transmission.
“The upsurge will be extremely fast. ... We will see a sharp rise in the near future,” Health Minister Budi Gunadi Sadikin told a news conference Friday, adding that the current wave would likely peak at the end of February or in early March.
He said the government dedicated more beds for COVID-19 patients, ramped up tracing and testing and intensified vaccinations in all regions. But some health experts doubt the measures will be enough given the lax enforcement.
Bed occupancy rates in the capital, Jakarta, the epicenter of the omicron outbreak, rose from 5% in early January to 45% on Saturday, said Jakarta Deputy Governor Ahmad Riza Patria. He said “omicron is moving too quickly" in the city, where more than 80% of the 10 million residents have been vaccinated.
Pandu Riono, an Indonesian epidemiologist and academic adviser to the government, said Indonesians are still traumatized from the delta variant when many died in isolation at home or while waiting to receive emergency care as hospitals were swamped.
During last year's surge, hospitals erected plastic tents as makeshift intensive care units, and patients waited for days before being admitted. Oxygen tanks were rolled out on the sidewalk for those lucky enough to receive them, while others were told they would need to find their own supply.
Riono said a third wave would be unlikely to push Indonesia’s health care system to the brink because omicron generally causes less severe symptoms than delta.
President Joko Widodo on Friday urged asymptomatic patients to self-isolate at home for five days and to use telemedicine services through which they can access doctors, medicines and vitamins for free, or to visit a community health center.
“This is important so that our health care facilities can focus on treating patients with more severe symptoms or patients of other diseases that need intensive care,” Widodo said.
Dicky Budiman, an epidemiologist at Griffith University in Australia, said a third wave is inevitable as long as a large portion of Indonesia’s population remains unprotected against COVID-19. As of Friday, only 61% of Indonesia’s 208 million people eligible for shots were fully vaccinated.
Overall, Indonesia has reported more than 4.3 million infections and 144,268 deaths from COVID-19.
Associated Press writer Edna Tarigan in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.