SINGAPORE: To prepare for an "expected surge" in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks, Singapore has increased the number of teams for contact tracing from three to 20, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told Parliament on Wednesday (Mar 25).
"We can trace up to 4,000 contacts each day, and will continue to scale up our contact tracing capacity as needed," he said in a ministerial statement addressing the outbreak in Singapore.
This comes after the number of cases in Singapore doubled from 266 to 558 in the past week, with 80 per cent of new cases imported. The top three sources of importation are the UK, US and Indonesia.
"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," Mr Gan said.
Still, the minister said Singapore's strategy is to slow down the infection rate and maintain it at as low a level for as long as possible.
"A lower infection rate will help us to better conduct epidemiological investigations, contact tracing and quarantining of close contacts, so as to prevent further spread of COVID-19 in the community," he said.
"It also preserves healthcare capacity to care for the more severe cases."
FLATTENING THE CURVE
To achieve this, Mr Gan said Singapore has introduced stringent safe distancing and other measures, adding that while the number of cases will still grow if the measures are done right, it will end up with a "lower peak".
"This is commonly known as flattening the curve," he added.
"But by flattening the curve, we may actually stretch out the pandemic, meaning it will take longer for the pandemic to be over."
But if Singapore does nothing, Mr Gan said the number of cases will spike, mirroring the situation in several cities and countries.
The only hope then, he said, is that most of the population gets infected and becomes immune, and the rate of infection starts to slow down as more become immune, or a vaccine or a cure is found.
But Mr Gan said this scenario has two risks: An uncontrolled spike in cases in a short period of time will overwhelm the healthcare system and lead to high mortality rates. The second risk is that it is not certain yet that this immunity will be effective or sustained.
Therefore, Mr Gan said it still important to flatten the curve by detecting cases early and initiating contact tracing as soon as possible to reduce the risk of the infection spreading.
READ: Sufficient capacity in healthcare system amid COVID-19 outbreak, but Singapore cannot be complacent: Gan Kim Yong
Mr Gan said Singapore has been able to expand its contact tracing capacity due to additional manpower from public service agencies including the Singapore Armed Forces.
To complement their efforts, Mr Gan encouraged Singaporeans to download the TraceTogether mobile application to protect themselves and their families.
The app uses Bluetooth to detect other users who come within close proximity for more than 30 minutes, enabling authorities to initiate a quicker and more accurate contact process if needed.
Mr Gan also reiterated the importance of social responsibility and safe distancing, stressing that those who have been issued with a quarantine order or stay-home notice must remain at home.
"If you violate them, there will be penalties, and the greatest penalty is that you may infect others close to you," he said.
"If you have been given a medical certificate, please stay home for the whole duration covered by the medical certificate."
Mr Gan said he has observed a few local clusters emerge where individuals who were feeling unwell or on medical certificate did not minimise social contact and continued to attend work or social activities.
"Studies on COVID-19 have shown that for each ill person who behaves responsibly, we can protect two to three others from being infected," he added.
"For the young and healthy amongst us, we may get away with a mild cold or cough, but for our vulnerable loved ones around us, the disease may prove to be more serious."
PROTECTING THE ELDERLY
Of particular concern are the elderly, as Mr Gan encouraged them to maintain good personal and environmental hygiene like everyone else, and engage in more home-based activities rather than group activities.
Singapore has suspended all senior-activities at community centres, residents' committees, Senior Activity Centres and other locations.
Instead, Mr Gan said seniors can exercise at home with TV and online exercise programmes, as well as watch TV shows covering topics like singing and cooking conducted by celebrities and People's Association trainers.
"Family members and caregivers of seniors should also take precautionary measures such as washing hands with soap and water before interacting with seniors, and refraining from visiting seniors if one is unwell," he said.
"The measures we have put in place are extra 'brakes' to slow down the transmission of the virus, prevent our healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed, help bring the number of cases back down over time, and protect, particularly, our seniors."
CLOSING THE EMOTIONAL DISTANCE
Despite the need to maintain a wider physical distance, Mr Gan urged people to close the emotional distance between them.
"We should not stop caring about fellow Singaporeans or build walls between ourselves," he stated.
"On the contrary, we need to be more united than ever so that we can ride through this crisis together."