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COVID-19 task force shares broad plan for new normal with possible home recovery and travel

COVID-19 task force shares broad plan for new normal with possible home recovery and travel

Co-chairs Lawrence Wong (left), Gan Kim Yong (centre) and Ong Ye Kung at a COVID-19 multi-ministry task force press conference on Jun 18, 2021. (Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information)

SINGAPORE: In a new normal where COVID-19 is endemic, infected people may recover at home and large gatherings as well as travel can resume, said the co-chairs of Singapore’s COVID-19 multi-ministry task force on Thursday (Jun 24).

Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung shared the outlines of the new normal in an article published by the Straits Times.

“It has been 18 months since the pandemic started, and our people are battle-weary. All are asking: When and how will the pandemic end?” wrote the ministers in the editorial titled Living Normally, with COVID-19. 

“The bad news is that COVID-19 may never go away.  The good news is that it is possible to live normally with it in our midst.”

Comparing COVID-19 to influenza, the ministers said many are infected by the flu every year, but the chances of falling very ill are so low that people live with it and carry on with their daily activities while taking simple precautions. 

Singapore can work towards a “similar outcome for COVID-19”, they added.

“Doing so will be our priority in the coming months.  We already have a broad plan.”

READ: IN FOCUS: Tackling COVID-19 with targeted measures - the new normal for Singapore?

READ: COVID-19: What happens when a pandemic becomes endemic?

SPEEDING UP VACCINATION

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said in a national address on May 31 that Singapore aims to have anyone who is eligible for vaccination and has expressed interest to get one should be able to receive at least their first dose by National Day.

The task force is working to bring forward the delivery of vaccines and to speed up the process, the co-chairs wrote in the op-ed on Thursday.

Citing Israel’s experience, the ministers said that the vaccines are highly effective in reducing the risk of COVID-19 infection and transmission, and helps prevent severe COVID-19 symptoms in those infected.

In Singapore, of the more than 120 fully vaccinated individuals who were infected with COVID-19, including some aged above 65 – and were not resident at hospitals or nursing homes – all had either no or mild symptoms.  In comparison, about 8 per cent of those who are unvaccinated developed serious symptoms, they added.

“To sustain a high level of protection, and to defend against new mutant strains resistant to current vaccines, booster shots may be needed in the future. We may have to sustain a comprehensive, multi-year vaccination programme,” said the ministers.  

“Early evidence suggests that with vaccination, we can tame COVID-19.”

READ: IN FOCUS: The rapid rise of the Delta variant and how it is shaping Singapore’s COVID-19 fight

In Israel, where 60 per cent of the population has been vaccinated, the hospitalisation rate among those fully vaccinated is 0.3 per 100,000 people daily and the mortality rate is 0.1 per 100,000 people.

“Essentially with a high rate of vaccination, Israel has brought the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 close to that of seasonal influenza in the US.  These are very promising outcomes,” said the ministers.

TESTING, TREATMENTS, HYGIENE

The focus of COVID-19 testing and surveillance will shift, said the co-chairs.

Instead of being a tool for ringfencing and quarantining infected people, it will be used at the borders to identify anyone carrying the virus, especially variants of concern. 

Testing will also ensure that events, social activities and overseas trips can happen safely.

COVID-19 testing will be faster and easier instead of relying on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which can take up to 48 hours for results as the samples have to be sent to laboratories to be tested.

Eventually, the airport, seaport, office buildings, malls, hospitals and educational institutions, can use faster test kits and breathalysers to screen staff and visitors, said the ministers.

READ: FAQ: What you need to know about the new DIY COVID-19 antigen rapid test kits

Wastewater testing will be used to find out if there are hidden infections in dormitories, hostels or housing estates. 

Treatments for COVID-19 will also be more effective and the Ministry of Health is tracking the development of therapeutic agents closely, ensuring that Singapore has adequate supplies of these drugs.

These will be used to treat the critically ill, speed up recovery of those who are infected and reduce the progression, severity and mortality caused by the disease.

“Finally, whether we can live with COVID-19 depends also on Singaporeans’ acceptance that COVID-19 will be endemic and our collective behaviour,” said the co-chairs. 

Everyone would need to practise good personal hygiene, stay away from crowds and the workplace when we feel unwell, thereby reducing transmission, they added.

TOWARDS A NEW NORMAL

“With vaccination, testing, treatment and social responsibility, it may mean that in the near future, when someone gets COVID-19, our response can be very different from now,” the ministers said.

In the new normal, an infected person could recover at home, because with vaccination the symptoms will be mostly mild, and with others around the infected person also vaccinated, the risk of transmission will be low.

In such a situation, there would be less concern that the healthcare system will be overwhelmed. 

There may not be a need to conduct massive contact tracing and quarantining of people each time an infection is discovered, they said.  

People can get themselves tested regularly using fast and easy tests, and if the result is positive, they can confirm with a PCR test and isolate themselves.

Instead of monitoring COVID-19 infection numbers every day, the focus will be on the outcomes: How many fall very sick, how many are in ICU and how many need to be intubated for oxygen. 

This would be similar to how we monitor the flu, said the ministers.

READ: Will taking a painkiller before the jab help? Your COVID-19 vaccine questions answered

Singapore could progressively ease its safe management rules and resume large gatherings as well as major events, like the National Day Parade or New Year Countdown. Businesses will have certainty that their operations will not be disrupted, they said.

Under the new normal, people would also be able to travel again, at least to countries which have also controlled the virus and turned it into an endemic norm. 

These countries will recognise each other’s vaccination certificates and travellers - especially those vaccinated - can get themselves tested before departure and be exempted from quarantine with a negative test on arrival.

“We are drawing up a road map to transit to this new normal, in tandem with the achievement of our vaccination milestones, though we know the battle against COVID-19 will continue to be fraught with uncertainty,” the ministers wrote in the op-ed.

“In the meantime, we still need to take the necessary precautions and safeguards, to keep infections and hospitalisations at bay.”

They added that history has shown that every pandemic “will run its course”.

“We must harness all our energy, resources and creativity to transit as quickly as we can to the desired end-state. 

"Science and human ingenuity will eventually prevail over COVID-19.  Cohesion and social consciousness will get us there faster.  We must all do our part.”

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Source: CNA/ta

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