SINGAPORE: COVID-19 might be "with us for a long time", but the coronavirus can be contained if Singapore follows its "dance steps", said leading infectious diseases specialist Leo Yee Sin on Thursday (May 14).
Calling the ongoing "circuit breaker" a "hammer" to curb the spread of the virus, she said that while strict safe distancing measures have flattened the infection curve in the community, such restrictions are "not sustainable".
"Eventually, we need to come out of that lockdown situation," said Professor Leo, who was speaking at a webinar organised by the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine and National University Health System.
However, it's unlikely that the virus will be eliminated, so the next step would be to minimise its impact, she said.
"What is left is for us to now develop a system to be able to contain the virus in a way that we basically follow the dance step of the virus," said Prof Leo, who is the executive director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID).
She said that the most likely scenario would be "waves of the epidemic interspersed with periods of low-level transmissions". Singapore needs to have the ability and healthcare capacity to cope with intermittent surges of infections, she added.
"It is extremely important that we need to be able to sustain that (public health) capacity and capability; continue to have active case finding (and be) able to contact trace, isolate, quarantine and have a rapid response team to be able to respond to any of the potential epidemic waves in the future," she said.
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The World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Wednesday that the coronavirus may never go away.
"It is important to put this on the table: this virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away," WHO emergencies expert Mike Ryan told an online briefing.
"I think there are no promises in this and there are no dates. This disease may settle into a long problem, or it may not be."
Prof Leo gave a similar assessment, adding that with the suppression of the virus, Singapore can reduce the rate of infection and the death toll while buying time until vaccines become available.
"We are all waiting for more good news on effective pharmaceutical interventions - whether remdesivir will one day become standard treatment - and possibly all waiting for one day that we can see effective vaccines made available," she added.
Singapore has recorded 26,098 cases of COVID-19 so far, with the vast majority of the cases among foreign workers living in dormitories. Twenty-one people have died of complications due to COVID-19.
The number of new daily cases in the community has fallen to single digits in recent days, about five weeks into the circuit breaker period.
Prof Leo, a veteran of several epidemics including the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, admitted that this was one of the "hardest viruses" she has tackled.
"I must say that no outbreaks are exactly the same," she said.
"They are different viruses, different characteristics.
"We thought that we would not be challenged by a virus of this nature. This virus is really one of the, I would say, so far, one of the hardest virus I can see, in terms of how this virus can easily move around the human population ... Just be ready that it will be with us for a long time."
She said that it has been "a very stressful period" for the healthcare sector in Singapore.
She added: "At NCID, we were provided with a small surge team, but honestly it's grossly inadequate.
"So then we have to look at our partnering institutions, Tan Tock Seng Hospital just across the road, to give us the manpower enhancement, and soon very quickly, we realised it wasn't enough."
The entire nation is now engaged in the battle against the disease, she said.
"This is what we call whole of Government approach, where it is no longer just restricted to the healthcare sector, it is the whole of Government being activated with almost every ministry being involved in the entire fight against COVID-19."