With new norms, there’s no let-up even for frontliners

Dr Leong Chee Loon (right) has been at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19 as HKL head of infectious diseases.

PETALING JAYA: When Dr Leong Chee Loon first heard of the Covid-19 pandemic, he was immediately reminded of the SARS outbreak in 2003 that killed 774 people worldwide.

At that time, he had only been a year with Hospital Kuala Lumpur (HKL), but he learned a lot from his “sifu” at the time, former health deputy director-general Dr Christopher Lee.

Now, 18 years later, Leong found himself in a similar situation as HKL head of infectious diseases when the Covid-19 virus first hit Malaysian shores.

“I actually just continued what Lee did in 2003. In that time, he had set up isolation rooms and negative pressure rooms to combat SARS, so I have the opportunity to manage the same rooms now,” he told FMT.

“After SARS we had H5N1, H1N1, MERS so there were a few infectious disease scenarios that reminded us not to be complacent. Then Covid-19 came.”

Leong remembers the first case that HKL received, right before Chinese New Year, and how that disrupted his plans for the festive season.

Forced to stay glued to his phone and to cut short his days off, he had to manage various referrals to the hospital. Little did he know this would just be the start of more cases.

“Soon after that, we had the Sri Petaling outbreak. That was a huge outbreak that my isolation ward couldn’t cope with. I needed help from the hospital director and my colleagues in the other departments to empty their wards.

“This is because in the second wave, the patients who were mainly the elderly were more ill and they developed respiratory symptoms where in the first wave, the majority of them only had fevers.”

The biggest struggle Leong had to go through was when some of his own staff members contracted the virus, thus threatening the operations of the hospital.

Forced to balance the tension between ensuring his workers-turned-patients were cared for and keeping the hospital in service, he got down to determining the source of infection and putting preventive measures in place.

To his relief, the source of infection was found to be from the community and not from when the workers were treating Covid-19 positive patients.

Regular training and refresher courses on how to don the personal protective equipment (PPE) were held in the hospital, said Leong, adding that health workers needed to be reminded of the procedures, even when things seemed quiet.

“When a health worker is affected, a lot of people will be considered close contacts because we work and eat together,” he said, adding that HKL could not afford to close temporarily being in the forefront of the war against the virus.

“So we couldn’t be complacent. We told everyone that wearing masks in the hospital area is a must.

“We needed to make sure our services could carry on and that our patients were quarantined and could get well.”

To say that the new norms the pandemic has brought on have been easy to adapt to would be inaccurate, as Leong tells how it has impacted patients and their treatments.

“I’ve seen some patients who were brought to tears because their loved ones couldn’t visit them. They do need the moral support.

“So now the hospital staff themselves have to give that support because there are restrictions for family members, he said.

Nevertheless, Leong firmly believes that these new norms are crucial for frontliners and not just at the workplace.

He stresses that there is no room for complacency, even as the Klang Valley enjoys a lower number of cases compared to other states.

“I tell my staff, don’t think that what happened outside the Klang Valley won’t happen here again. We still need to practise the new norms,” he said.

Physical distancing, wearing masks, proper cough ethics and frequent hand-washing are all so crucial, said Leong, adding that everyone needed to remind each other to practise these from time to time.

“We must practice the new norms. Whenever we socialise, we have to remember what the health ministry always tells us.

“I won’t say that I’m very good at it but we need to remind each other – wear a mask, practise good cough ethics and social distancing.”

For more information on embracing the new norms during this pandemic, visit https://www.infosihat.gov.my/images/media_sihat/normabaharu/HTML/mobile/index.html.