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Covid-19: S’pore ‘neither reversing nor racing ahead’ with reopening but pausing to slow, monitor spread, say ministers

SINGAPORE — In the face of questions over the progress of Singapore’s reopening amid a recent surge in Covid-19 cases, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Friday (Sept 10) that the country is neither “reversing” nor “racing ahead” but will take the next two to four weeks to slow down transmission and monitor the rise in infections.

Singapore's Covid-19 task force said on Sept 10, 2021, that it will monitor the rise of infections over the weeks ahead before embarking on further steps to reopen the country.

Singapore's Covid-19 task force said on Sept 10, 2021, that it will monitor the rise of infections over the weeks ahead before embarking on further steps to reopen the country.

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  • ​The authorities will track the coronavirus situation in the next two to four weeks given the rapid rise in infections
  • Locally transmitted cases have more than quadrupled over the past 18 days
  • The surge, fuelled by the highly transmissible Delta variant, is not unexpected
  • However, it is happening sooner than anticipated, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said

 

SINGAPORE — In the face of questions over the progress of Singapore’s reopening during the ongoing surge in Covid-19 cases, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Friday (Sept 10) that the country is neither “reversing” nor “racing ahead” but will take the next two to four weeks to slow down transmission and monitor the rise in infections.

“Let us navigate this wave first, before we embark on further steps to reopen. So for now, we are not reversing,” Mr Ong, who co-chairs the national Covid-19 task force, said at a press conference.

“We still want to progress on our transition journey, but we're not racing ahead.”

Echoing this view, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, another co-chair of the task force, said that it would not be prudent to press ahead with further opening up during this period, especially in the midst of an exponential rise in infections.

“That would be a reckless thing to do under current circumstances… We believe it is more prudent to take a pause now, do our best to slow down the spread where we can, and then monitor closely what happens to our ICUs (intensive care units) over the next two to four weeks.”

The number of  locally transmitted coronavirus cases has more than quadrupled over the past 18 days. The task force said that it expects daily cases to hit 1,000 soon and 2,000 in a few weeks.

Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, another co-chair of the task force, said that it is thus adopting a cautious approach to allow the country more time to ascertain that there will not be a spike in serious cases or deaths.

Mr Gan said that there have been questions about whether the Government was going back on its plan to reopen despite Singapore's high vaccination rate, which stands at 81 per cent.

“While I understand that many would prefer a straighter road to Covid-19 resilience, we have said before that we must expect some twists and turns along the way, given the unpredictability of the virus.

“So we need to be prepared to adjust our plans, as we go along,” he added.

Mr Ong pointed to the exponential rise in cases since Aug 23, when there were 94 locally transmitted cases. On Thursday, there were 450.

The surge, fuelled by the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus, was not unexpected but is happening sooner than anticipated, he said.

Even so, the number of admissions to ICUs and deaths has been kept low, though the authorities expect it to rise.

Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at the Ministry of Health (MOH), said that the Delta variant causes more severe infections.

In many countries, including the United Kingdom and Israel, people infected with the Delta variant have been shown to be more than twice as likely to be admitted to hospitals compared with infections by other variants.

Studies by the National Centre for Infectious Diseases also confirmed that patients with the Delta strain were more likely to require oxygen support and intensive care, and were at higher risk of death.

The next two to four weeks will be crucial, Mr Gan said, in determining whether patients eventually face serious illness or complications.

He acknowledged that the rapid rise in infections has resulted in some public anxiety, which was why the authorities unveiled  measures earlier this week to slow down the increase and prevent Singapore’s healthcare capacity from being overwhelmed.

The authorities have urged the public to limit their social interactions to one a day, and from Wednesday, banned  social gatherings and interactions at workplaces.

Singaporeans, especially vulnerable seniors and those who live with older family members, were also strongly encouraged to reduce their non-essential social activities for the next two weeks.

As the country enters “more uncharted” waters in the coming days, Mr Gan said that it would need to step up  testing.

The Government will use the next few weeks to monitor the number of serious cases, ramp up its testing capacity and continue increasing its vaccination coverage.

“This will allow us to move forward with more confidence in time to come.”

SOCIETY'S THRESHOLD FOR DEATHS AND SERIOUS ILLNESSES

Mr Ong said that at its current capacity, Singapore hospitals are able to handle a maximum of 1,000 cases in ICUs, though the intention is “not to go anywhere near that”.

“Right now, we can probably ramp up to a couple of hundred, 300 maybe, and be able to cope with that level,” he said, revealing that this is a working “cap” used by the task force.

Right now, there are seven serious cases of Covid-19 who are warded in ICUs.

TODAY then asked if, in the longer term, there was a way for society to come to a common agreement on the number of deaths and serious illnesses a day from Covid-19 that it is prepared to accept.

Responding, Mr Ong said that it is not possible for the task force to set a target, or a threshold, for morbidity before tighter restrictions have to be imposed.

“As to what can society and ourselves accept and the level of ICU (usage) and morbidity… that is a social discussion that is ongoing,” he continued.

He hopes that the authorities can keep morbidities, or the number of people infected, as low as possible.

Mr Wong then urged people not to underestimate the exponential growth of cases, which Singapore is now facing.

“Do not be lulled by (the fact that there are) seven cases in ICU and therefore, there is so much headroom. Exponential growth can change the situation in a few weeks’ time,” he said.

Addressing this exponential rise in cases is thus the chief concern for the task force, and it is the reason that questions about the “steady state” of mortality rates from Covid-19 is a separate conversation for later, Mr Wong added.

“Once we start living with Covid-19, we must, as we have always said, expect more cases and more deaths,” he said.

Assoc Prof Mak said that few countries have taken the steps Singapore has taken, and so, there are few precedents that the country can look at to predict its trajectory with deaths and morbidity.

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SITUATION REPORT

In an update on Friday, MOH said that most residents are respecting infection-control measures and around 0.5 per cent of Covid-19 tests have come back positive.

Even so, the number of daily cases has been rising over the past fortnight, from an average of 76 cases a day to 288 cases daily in the past week.

“At the current trajectory, it is likely that we will soon reach more than 1,000 daily cases, detected early through intensified testing,” MOH said.

For now, the number of serious cases remains low. As of Thursday, there were 26 cases of serious illness needing oxygen support and seven in critical condition under intensive care.

This is likely due to the high vaccination rate and the younger age profile of those infected with Covid-19, MOH said.

It stressed again that there remained strong evidence suggesting that vaccination protects against severe illness.

Among fully vaccinated Covid-19 patients in the past 28 days, 99.2 per cent had mild or no symptoms. Among the unvaccinated and partially vaccinated, 95.1 per cent had mild or no symptoms.

“Nevertheless, we are still early in this new wave of transmission and we need to continue to monitor the situation and remain vigilant.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NG JUN SEN

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