COVID-19 circuit breaker must be 'carefully' lifted despite drop in community cases

A man walks past taped up tables and stools, during the "circuit breaker" measures to curb the coronavirus outbreak, at a food centre here on 17 April, 2020. (PHOTO: Reuters)
A man walks past taped up tables and stools, during the "circuit breaker" measures to curb the coronavirus outbreak, at a food centre here on 17 April, 2020. (PHOTO: Reuters)

SINGAPORE — Since a partial lockdown was imposed in Singapore on 7 April, the average number of daily new COVID-19 cases in the community has gone down drastically from 41 to just eight per day in the last week (5-11 May).

The situation in the foreign worker dormitories has also been stabilising, dipping from an average of more than 1,000 new cases per day in late-April to an average of about 700 per day in the past week.

However, the lifting of circuit breaker measures has to be done in a “very careful, calibrated fashion” as authorities here battle with the outbreak on two fronts – in the community and dorms – in order to avoid the emergence of new infection clusters, warned Ministry of Health (MOH) director of medical services Kenneth Mak.

“We're not letting go, letting loose of the leash completely. The idea is really to keep a close watch on how things are, to make sure that the situation in the community still remains under control, before we take the subsequent step to release a little bit further.

“So it's not going to be a situation where we are releasing completely,” added Assoc Prof Mak on Tuesday (12 May), the same day that restrictions were lifted for certain businesses, including barbers and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) medical halls as well as those retailing pet supplies.

At a virtual technical briefing, and a subsequent virtual media conference by the multi-ministry taskforce on the coronavirus, on the same day, authorities were asked if the number of community cases would remain low after the circuit breaker restrictions are being gradually eased.

In response, director of communicable diseases Vernon Lee conceded that events, after the circuit breaker ends on 1 June, will be “difficult to predict”. In a bid to curb the spread of the virus, Singapore’s circuit breaker period was extended by four more weeks to end on 1 June instead of the initial 4 May.

Nevertheless, he noted that the trajectory has been “very constant” over the past six weeks, showing that the number of cases is declining steadily. This is also borne out by other indicators, such as the increasing number of linked cases, as well as the R0, or reproduction number, which is currently below one.

“So all these points towards decreasing infection rates in the community, and we hope that this will sustain over the next few weeks, and by the time we are out of the circuit breaker, numbers will be low enough such that we can keep infection or spread of infection in check,” said Assoc Prof Lee.

Prof Mak added that the lifting of measures must be carefully paced, considering that there will be an impact on social distancing measures in the community.

“Because we don't want to let everything go, have people flood in, everyone goes to the malls, everyone goes into the supermarkets and goes to the barber, goes to McDonald's, and then we create the exact same circumstances which we are concerned about: where people come into close contact, and they come and circulate very closely to each other again,” he explained.

“That sets up a new set of circumstances that predisposes toward a spread for infection one more time.”

No space for complacency

Health Minister and taskforce co-chair Gan Kim Yong said at the conference that if “all goes well” by 1 June and the overall number of new cases remains low, authorities here hope to roll back more measures to allow more economic and social activities to be restored.

However, some measures, such as safe distancing and safe management at workplaces, will remain in place.

“I should caution that even as we approach 1st June, we do not expect we will open everything and everything (will) go back to normal, we begin to celebrate and have parties,” Gan said, adding that the taskforce will share details of their plans in due course.

He also reiterated that the risk of community cases may arise again with the expanded easing of circuit breaker measures and urged the nation not to be “lulled into complacency”.

“This has been an experience of many countries which have seen in the second wave of infections after relaxing their social distancing measures. Therefore, we need to be very careful, remain vigilant, and minimise the risk of any sharp rise in cases, or large clusters in the community,” he added.

Also important is to manage the nation’s second outbreak involving foreign workers, stressed Gan.

“Our aim is to make sure, that as far as possible, all migrant workers are free of infection before resuming work when the sectors gradually reopen,” he noted.

“This is an important strategy that will help us gradually lift the circuit breaker measures, but it will mean that the number of cases at the migrant worker dormitories remains high for some time, while we carry out aggressive testing.”

Over 32,000 foreign workers living in dorms here have been tested so far, about 10 per cent of all workers living in such residences.

National Development Minister and taskforce co-chair Lawrence Wong noted that authorities here are “steadily making progress” in controlling the outbreak on both fronts.

“That is why now we are planning for the next phase when the circuit breaker period ends on the 1st of June,” he added.

But he stressed that it is also critical to ensure that Singapore has the ability to detect the new cases quickly and to prevent one case from forming large clusters.

“That’s why we’re building up our capacity for faster contact tracing (and) for more comprehensive large-scale testing. With these enablers, we will be able to have some confidence in opening the economy and easing the circuit breaker measures,” said Wong.

On Tuesday, the MOH confirmed 884 new COVID-19 cases in Singapore, bringing the total to 24,671. Of the figure, 22,334 are foreign workers living in dorms.

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