SINGAPORE — Penalising those involved in Singapore's KTV cluster of COVID-19 cases would discourage people from coming forward for testing and make it more difficult to contain the outbreak, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Monday (26 July).
"We... do not want individuals, especially those who are infected, to avoid getting tested and treated, or hide where they have been from contact tracers, because they are afraid of getting penalised.
"This will make it harder to contain the spread, and would cost us more in the long run," said Ong while delivering a Ministerial Statement in Parliament.
He made the comments in response to Jurong GRC Member of Parliament Xie Yao Quan, who asked if the government would consider making the individuals in the KTV cluster pay their COVID-19 medical expenses in full.
Ong noted that while many are upset with the "irresponsible behaviour" of those involved in the cluster, the government still had a "public responsibility to ensure that everyone receives the medical care that they need".
Following the detection of several positive cases among KTV patrons and lounge hostesses on 12 July, the cluster grew rapidly and reached 237 cases as of Sunday. The Ministry of Health has since imposed a suspension of all pivoted nightlife establishments till 30 July.
"We were on the path towards progressive opening, and the KTV cluster was a major unexpected bump on the road," said Ong.
He explained that the Multi-Ministry Taskforce (MTF) – which Ong co-chairs – took the advice of medical experts amid the outbreak. The MTF decided that, given the government's extensive contact tracing and testing efforts and the fact that Singapore had a near 50 per cent two-dose vaccination rate at the time, the KTV cluster would not significantly affects plans to for the country's reopening.
"Based on how the cluster has developed, we still believe that was the correct call," said Ong, noting the low number of cases linked to the cluster seen over the past three days.
'Distinct' Delta variant
In his speech, Ong reiterated that it was the larger Jurong Fishery Port cluster that led to the government moving Singapore back to its Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) posture.
With cases first detected on 16 July at the port and Hong Lim Market and Food Centre, infections quickly spread to more within the community via markets that took deliveries from the port. As of Sunday, the cluster has grown to 792 cases, making it Singapore's largest community cluster since the pandemic began.
"The preliminary phylogenetic findings suggest that while the KTV and Jurong Fishery Port clusters were all driven by the Delta variant, it is distinct from the Delta variant that infected Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the Changi Airport clusters.
"The recent clusters have a Delta strain that is more closely related to what we detected in imported cases from our immediate region," said Ong.
He added that slight genetic differences have also been noticed between the strains in the two clusters, which suggest that there were multiple events that introduced the virus to the respective groups.
While daily infection numbers have been over 100 for the past few days, Ong said the situation is "stabilising" and expressed confidence that this latest wave of transmission can be progressively suppressed through more testing and tracing.
Given the transmissibility of the Delta variant, he said that stopping infections entirely is "probably no longer possible".
"The only possible way to eradicate infections is to go into a hard Circuit Breaker. For at least a month, probably, too. But we don’t want to be locked up. Further, even if we do lock ourselves up, when the CB ends and we open up, cases will rise again...
"We must instead find ways to live with this virus, safely," said Ong.
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