Singapore to ramp up plans to handle 5,000 daily new COVID cases: Ong Ye Kung

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung speaks at a COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce on 24 September, 2021. (PHOTO: MCI)
Health Minister Ong Ye Kung speaks at a COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce on 24 September, 2021. (PHOTO: MCI)

SINGAPORE — Singapore will start ramping up plans to be ready to handle 5,000 daily new COVID-19 cases, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (24 September), amid an ongoing coronavirus surge here that is rising much quicker than projected.

His comments at a virtual media conference by the multi-ministry COVID-19 taskforce come after Singapore registered two consecutive days of record-high new cases: 1,457 on Wednesday and followed by 1,504 on Thursday.

Singapore is expected to hit 3,200 new cases in eight days' time as it enters the "fifth doubling cycle", said the taskforce co-chair.

"Whether it gallops there, or slows down and reaches there slowly – this is something we need to observe. What we do know is that no transmission wave lasts forever," he said, adding that despite strict safe management measures in place, "the Delta variant doesn't follow our script".

The exponential rise in infections over a very short period of time has put Singapore's healthcare system and workers under tremendous pressure and stress, Ong noted.

"(Delta) transmitted through the community and is driving up daily cases much more quickly than we expected before our ramped-up plans are fully implemented, before our support systems are fully in place," he added.

Faster implementation to support 'stressed' healthcare system

To cope with the surge in cases, authorities will accelerate the implementation of plans, said Ong.

Currently, over 40 per cent of daily COVID-19 cases – and a rising proportion – are on the home recovery programme. As of Thursday, 23 patients are in critical condition in the intensive care unit (ICU) while 163 require oxygen supplementation.

The plans include expanding and assigning more resources to services – telemedicine, a buddy system, and a hotline – made available to those on home recovery. Some 20 to 30 people are on the home recovery buddy team.

The number of COVID-19 hospital beds will also be increased to 1,600, up from a previously planned 1,000. But this will come "at the expense of some degradation of normal services", Ong said.

By end of the week, beds in community care facilities will rise to 4,600, from about 3,500 currently.

Authorities have also launched a new class of facilities called community treatment facilities (CTFs), which are better equipped for closer monitoring and management of COVID-19 patients with chronic illnesses.

About 300 CTF beds have been commissioned this week, with another 700 such beds at Changi Expo and another 200 at Sengkang Hospital to open over the coming weeks.

The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and private sector hospitals will be roped in to help operate the CTFs. The SAF will also aid in clearing the backlog of requests made by those on home recovery, such as delivering care packs.

With these plans in place, Singapore's healthcare system will be able to cope with 2,500 to 3,000 new COVID-19 daily infections but it will be "quite stretched", Ong said, "at the same time, we need to dig very deep, to prepare ourselves for 5,000 cases".

Not going back to low daily cases

Finance Minister and co-chair Lawrence Wong thanked Singaporeans for their efforts in minimising social activities to stop further COVID-19 transmission but cautioned that the number of cases here will continue to rise.

"Unfortunately, despite our collective efforts, the virus continues to gain ground," he said.

Wong noted that the natural reproduction rate of the contagious Delta variant – if left unfettered without any safe management measures in place – is "easily around five or six".

"We were able to bring the reproduction rate...down to about 1.5. That's already a significant reduction," he said.

But even so, cases are still doubling every week or so, Wong stressed. "That's the reality – and to bring it further down requires a lot more effort."

At about 1,600 daily new cases currently, Singapore sees about 26 infections per 100,000 population per day.

While lower than what is experienced in the UK and the US, which are seeing about 40 to 50 cases per 100,000 population per day, it is "higher than many other European countries that have reached an equilibrium", such as Germany, France, Italy, and Spain, which are seeing about seven to 10 cases, Ong said.

"This is a possible reference point for us. If we carefully chart our way forward in this transition journey, we will see cases continuing to rise. At some point, it will turn before coming down and stabilising at a level that represents a new equilibrium," he added.

But this new level is likely to be much higher than what Singaporeans are used to, said Wong.

"In other words, we are not going back to a scenario of low daily cases anymore. It is not going to be possible because we are moving forward to learn to live with the virus and we are continuing with our reopening plans," he noted, later adding that authorities have no immediate plans to place Singapore under a lockdown or Heightened Alert restrictions.

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