COVID-19: Singapore can trace up to 4,000 contacts a day, capacity being boosted – Gan Kim Yong

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
A family wearing face masks seen in Orchard Road on 21 March 2020. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — The Singapore government is boosting its contact tracing capacity in preparation for an “expected surge” in COVID-19 cases here, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Wednesday (25 March).

Thanks to manpower support from public service agencies, including the Singapore Armed Forces, the number of contact tracing teams has gone from three to 20 to date, Gan said while delivering a 25-minute ministerial statement on the pandemic in Parliament.

“We can trace up to 4,000 contacts each day, and will continue to scale up our contact tracing capacity as needed,” he said.

The government has also been turning to technology to support its contact tracing efforts, for example in the form of the TraceTogether app launched last week. Users of the app will be alerted if they come into contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case whom they do not know.

“For those who are concerned about privacy, I would like to assure you that the app does not track your location, but uses Bluetooth to detect if you have been in close proximity for more than 30 minutes with someone else with the app activated,” said Gan, who urged all Singaporeans to download the app.

Flattening the curve

In his speech, Gan, who is also co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce here, outlined the government’s strategy for dealing with the pandemic.

This involves a dual approach of ensuring sufficient healthcare capacity while also preventing the formation of new clusters.

“This way, we can try to avoid an exponential growth in the number of infections, which could quickly overwhelm the healthcare system, as we saw in Hubei and Italy, and increasingly in many other countries,” he said.

Gan explained that Singapore’s approach is to slow down the infection rate and “maintain it at as low a level for as long as possible”.

This would help the government better conduct epidemiological investigations, as well as contact tracing and quarantining of close contacts. It will also help to preserve healthcare capacity to attend to more severe cases, he added.

“If we do nothing, the number of cases will shoot up, like what happened in several cities and countries recently. Then our only hope is that most of the population gets infected and become immune, and the rate of infection starts to slow down as more become immune, or a vaccine or a cure is found,” said Gan.

He noted that there are two risks to such an approach: that of an uncontrolled spike in cases that could overwhelm the healthcare system and the uncertainty over whether the immunity established will be effective or sustained.

By comparison, Singapore’s approach aims to flatten the country’s epidemic curve by introducing stringent safe distancing and other measures to slow down the infection rate.

“The number will still grow but if we do it right, we will end up with a lower peak,” said Gan.

“(By) flattening the curve, we may actually stretch out the pandemic, meaning it will take longer for the pandemic to be over. It is nonetheless important to do so for the reasons I stated.”

On Tuesday, Singapore confirmed 49 cases of the virus, bringing the total to 558; 17 remain in the intensive care unit while two have died.

About 80 per cent of new cases announced over the past week were imported from countries other than China, with most of them having recently travelled to the UK, the US, and Indonesia.

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