SINGAPORE — Even as COVID-19 cases in Singapore are no longer doubling as quickly they were in the past month, there is still no sign of numbers falling, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Wednesday (20 October).
"This will take time as more people get boosted, as individuals who are vaccinated catch the virus and experience only mild flu-like symptoms, the antibodies and the immunity in our society will build up over time," said Ong during a doorstop interview.
When that happens, the number of COVID-19 infections will fall and Singapore can open up socio-economic (activities) without cases rising very rapidly, said the co-chair of the multi-ministry COVID-19 taskforce.
"We have made progress in our transition to living with COVID. But there's still some way to go."
On the plus side, cases are no longer doubling like in September to early October, Ong noted, adding that cases have stabilised for over two weeks.
In September, the doubling rate for cases was from six to eight days and later slowed to about 10 to 12 days in early October.
The "usual terrible Tuesday", referring to the post-weekend spike resulting in the daily case count on 19 October, saw about 3,500 community cases being reported but this has appeared to have moderated on Wednesday, Ong noted.
Nonetheless, authorities will have to monitor the trend over the next few days to understand the trajectory of the transmission, he added.
There is also a higher percentage of infected persons with no or mild symptoms, which has risen progressively over the last 28 days to 98.6 per cent, up from about 98 per cent previously, said Ong.
Fewer people aged 60 and above who are vaccinated are getting infected too. At its peak in early October, 1,000 vaccinated seniors were reported to be infected with COVID-19 in a day and this has fallen to 279 on Tuesday, Ong noted.
The decline is due to several factors, including seniors who have cut back on their social activities. A major factor is because of the booster jabs they have been receiving, which are fobbing off infections, Ong said.
But the number of infections among unvaccinated seniors continues to be high, he stressed.
This group, patients aged 60 and above, account for two-thirds of patients in the intensive care unit (ICU) and who have died. A total of 246 people have died from the disease as of Tuesday, with the youngest casualty aged 23.
Over the past five days, the number of infections among seniors averaged 127 a day.
"For unvaccinated seniors in their 60s, our data show one in four will require oxygen, ICU care or will succumb, The risk goes up to one in three for those in their 70s, one in two are those in their 80s," said Ong. "Once an unvaccinated senior is on oxygen, more than one in five will go on to need ICU care or die."
Healthcare system under pressure
Singapore's hospitals and healthcare workers continue to come under pressure, Ong noted, as they brace themselves for a sustained heavy patient load.
"Our 2,000 isolation rooms are 81 per cent filled. Queues have formed for COVID and non-COVID patients needing hospital beds in certain hospitals. We have stood up 207 ICU (intensive care unit) beds – 71 are occupied by patients who are intubated," Ong said.
These patients typically are hospitalised for an average of 15 days, but some can stay up to as long as a month.
Ong said authorities can expand the number of ICU beds to 300 beds if need be, but cautioned that it will be at the expense of "further degradation" of normal service and normal medical care.
Former swabbers are being redeployed as patient care and healthcare assistants, and the government is also tapping on the help of the SG Healthcare Corps, where 2,000 people have signed up and about 800 are ready for deployment.
Finance Minister Lawrence Wong noted, "We are trying to add capacity, but it's not simply a matter of having extra beds or purchasing new equipment...our medical personnel are stretched and fatigued."
As it will take time for these reinforcements to come in, Singapore faces a "considerable risk" of its healthcare system being overwhelmed, the taskforce co-chair added.
"We know this is a difficult time for everyone. In many ways, I would say this is probably the most difficult phase in our journey through COVID so far. But this phase will not last indefinitely," Wong stressed. "So let's continue to have faith that the situation will get better."
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