SINGAPORE — Singapore’s rate of testing for COVID-19 is higher than its Asian counterparts such as South Korea and Taiwan, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong in Parliament on Wednesday (25 March).
During his 25-minute ministerial statement on the coronavirus pandemic, he revealed that around 39,000 tests have been done for COVID-19 here.
This translates to 6,800 tests per million people in Singapore, compared with around 6,500 in South Korea, and 1,000 in Taiwan, added Gan, who is also co-chair of the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce.
South Korea, especially, has won high praise for managing the outbreak, with measures including drive-through testing. The country, which has over 9,000 cases including 126 deaths so far, is able to carry out 15,000 tests per day.
In his speech, Gan also noted that the number of cases here more than doubled from 266 in the past week.
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 over the past week were imported from countries other than China, with the top three countries with the most travel history are the United Kingdom, the United States, and Indonesia.
This is despite the fact that around 1,000 Singapore residents and long-term pass holders return from China in the past week, Gan said.
“And over the coming weeks, the number of cases will continue to rise, as some of our around 200,000 overseas Singaporeans return home from all over the world,” he added.
S’pore’s three-pronged approach, research efforts
Gan reiterated that the government has thus far slowed the local spread through a three-pronged approach – reducing imported cases, detecting and isolating cases early as well as emphasising social responsibility and good personal hygiene habits.
These include imposing “extra brakes” such as tighter border controls, advising Singaporeans to defer all travel plans, strengthening border checks as well as putting a place in a system to detect cases early through surveillance at hospitals, polyclinics, and public health preparedness clinics.
To date, there are more than 900 public health preparedness clinics offering subsidised consultation and treatment for Singapore residents with respiratory illnesses.
They have benefited from more than 267,000 subsidised attendances at these clinics thus far, on top of that at polyclinics, said Gan.
On the research front, Gan said that the National Centre for Infectious Disease (NCID) and Tan Tock Seng Hospital, together with Singapore Blood Blank, have initiated donor recruitment to collect convalescent blood plasma from recovered patients for treatment for other COVID-19 patients.
Doctors here have also been participating in international clinical trials, with collaborators such as the US National Institutes of Health, he added.
Gan also noted that the Duke-NUS Medical School is working with Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and international partners to develop a clinical trial for a vaccine, with plans to start testing sometime this year.
Greater support for economy, managing healthcare capacity
Greater support for the economy and workers during the COVID-19 outbreak will be introduced by the government, said Gan.
“We do not know how long the pandemic will last, but we have to plan on the basis that COVID-19 will be with us for a long while, maybe till the end of the year or longer, and ensure that we have the resources and capabilities to see us through.
“COVID-19 has also taken a toll on our economy, and the impact will extend way beyond the pandemic.”
Gan also noted that significant investments have been made in the past to ensure sufficient healthcare capacity to manage infectious outbreaks. For instance, the 330-bed NCID can be further increased to over 500 beds if necessary.
To preserve capacity and resources for high-priority cases, clinicians at public hospitals had earlier reviewed their patients and deferred non-urgent appointments and elective procedures where clinically appropriate to do so, he added.
“We are also exploring collaborations with private hospitals for some non-COVID-19 patients to be cared for there instead,” said Gan, adding that transferred patients through such collaborations will continue to pay similar rates they would have paid at public hospitals.
Measures to reduce healthcare staff burnout
Stressing the importance of healthcare staff here, he noted that relevant institutions will make sure that their staff are well-rested and have put in place a series of measures to reduce staff burnout, such as counselling services and peer support programmes.
“The surge in patient load due to COVID-19 means that some are taking on longer shifts, while others are required to take on additional roles,” Gan said. “Hence each of us can help by doing the right thing to reduce the risk of local transmission.”
In response to a question by Nominated Member of Parliament Walter Theseira on government's support for frontline health care workers who requested for extra housing options to isolate themselves from their family, Gan said there is an existing scheme for such help.
However, he appealed to landlords to allow such workers, those renting places, to continue to stay in these apartments as they are clear of infections given protocols in the hospitals.
“Let’s not segregate them. Let’s not ostracise them. We ought to be inclusive so I think that's a key message for healthcare workers who do need housing support,” said Gan.
Resource will be stretched as more clusters emerge
As more clusters emerge, resources will be stretched, noted Gan, adding that the Republic has tapped on private capacity, set up community care facilities and converted some government quarantine facilities to house milder cases.
“We will continue to explore the use of such isolation facilities for our well and stable COVID-19 patients. This way, we can focus our critical hospital resources on the seriously ill, to minimise the number of fatalities,” he added.
But Gan stressed that despite the additional social distancing measures in place, Singaporeans need “to close the emotional distance between us”.
“As (Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong) pointed out, this is as much a psychological battle as it is a medical one. To win the battle, we must close ranks while keeping a safe physical distance,” he said.
“The months ahead will be challenging. We need to be prepared for disruptions to our daily lives, and changes to how we do things. But I am confident that if we stay united, with a whole-of-society effort, we can get through this together as a nation, SG United.”
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