SINGAPORE: Singapore’s healthcare system has “sufficient flexibility and buffer” to manage the expected increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Wednesday (Mar 18), who also said that the outbreak could last beyond the year.
“I would say there is sufficient flexibility and buffer to allow us to manage the expected number of cases coming in,” said Mr Gan as he addressed reporters at a press conference.
Mr Gan noted that the travel restrictions and social distancing measures implemented are efforts to reduce the number of cases at any point in time to ensure that our healthcare capacity is “not only able to cope but has sufficient buffer capacity to allow us to meet the expected increase in numbers”.
On Wednesday, the Ministry of Health (MOH) also advised Singaporeans to defer all travel abroad with immediate effect amid a heightened risk of imported COVID-19 cases.
Singapore reported 47 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, 33 of which are imported - mostly returning Singapore residents who were infected overseas.
Nineteen of them had travelled to Europe, while six had been in North America. Six other cases been to ASEAN nations while another case travelled beyond ASEAN to other parts of Asia.
The remaining imported case had travelled to both Europe and North America.
READ: Singaporeans advised to defer all travel abroad amid heightened risk of imported COVID-19 cases
Nine other cases are linked to previous cases while five are currently unlinked, MOH added.
“We do expect to see a higher number than this in time to come. Therefore, it is important for us to always bear in mind that while our healthcare capacity is sufficient, we have planned for it, but we should never be complacent and take it for granted,” said Mr Gan.
“We must do all we can to manage the number of cases so that we aim to reduce the total number in any day, the peak number of any day, so that our healthcare capacity can still manage them.”
Mr Gan also stressed that the peak of the virus should be delayed as long as possible, spreading out cases “so that we have sufficient capacity” for them.
“But by deferring the peak it also may mean that the outbreak lasts longer. Because instead of everyone coming down with COVID-19, we stretch it out,” he added.
The potential for the number of COVID-19 cases to rise so significantly that it overwhelms Singapore’s healthcare capacity is “something that we are always mindful of", said MOH director of medical services Kenneth Mak.
“That has not happened yet. And we do have plans that allow us then to expand our capacity and capability accordingly as needed,” said Dr Mak.
“The travel restrictions are there for us to control importation of cases and therefore allow the number of new cases as they emerge to occur at a rate that we can comfortably handle.”
There are various plans already in place for the capacity to be expanded, said Mr Gan, adding that he visited Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the National Centre for Infectious Diseases on Wednesday to learn more about their contingency plans.
This would include converting some normal wards into isolation wards or COVID-19 wards. Mr Gan also noted that MOH has ongoing collaborations with private hospitals to possibly send some non-COVID-19 patients there to preserve capacity in public hospitals.
It was also announced on Wednesday that Singaporeans, permanent residents, long-term pass holders and short-term visitors entering Singapore from 11.59pm on Friday will be issued a 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN).
Singapore residents and long-term pass holders entering from the Hubei province in China will serve a 14-day quarantine.
All short-term visitors will have to provide proof of the place where they will serve the SHN, for example, a hotel booking covering the entire period or a place of residence that they or their family members own.
People under SHN will have to stay at their place of residence at all times for 14 days after entering Singapore.
"The existing measures which apply to all inbound travellers, such as requiring those who exhibit fever and/or other symptoms of respiratory illness to undergo a COVID-19 swab test at the checkpoints, will continue to apply," MOH said.
As announced previously, short-term visitors with recent travel history to mainland China, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, South Korea and Spain are not allowed to enter or transit in Singapore.
Explaining why the number of confirmed imported cases is expected to rise, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said the recent rise in numbers is from people who arrived in Singapore one to two weeks ago.
Citing the example of the chartered flights from Wuhan on Jan 30 and Feb 9, Mr Wong noted that “quite a number” of Singaporeans on those flights were infected.
“That was one city. Now we have many cities all over the world in Europe, in America where the virus is circulating and spreading quite quickly.”
He noted that while there are still commercial flights available, there is a chance that many returnees will be infected.
“This recent rise in numbers are people who came back one to two weeks ago. That’s why even with these measures we think the number of cases will continue to rise and even beyond.”
Responding to questions about how long the outbreak could last, Mr Gan noted that the outbreak in Singapore would largely depend on the situation around the world. He also said it could last beyond the year.
“Therefore we have to prepare for the long haul. The measures that we put in place, we need to think about how can we adjust it to a level that we can sustain for many months, not just for the next week or so," said Mr Gan.