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Doctor previously infected with SARS says masks help in prevention of Wuhan virus but Singapore govt notes otherwise

On 28 January, a doctor named Leong Hoe Nam from Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital spoke to radio station 91.3’s Glenn Ong and Flying Dutchman about the deadly novel coronavirus.

Dr Leong, who is an Infectious Disease Specialist, talked about the seriousness of the Wuhan virus, as well as on methods Singaporeans can follow to safeguard themselves against the virus.

As of 4 February, the virus has killed 425 people and infected close to 20,000 individuals, nearly all of them in Hubei, and spread to two dozen countries since it emerged in December 2019 at a market that sold wild animals in the city.

The number of infections has exceeded the total reported in the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003.

In Singapore, 18 cases have been reported as of 1 February. The novel coronavirus also claimed its first fatality outside of mainland China when a man died due to the virus in the Philippines.

On Thursday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) also declared the outbreak in China a global public health emergency, and noted that there are chances for the virus to spread to countries that lack the capabilities to deal with it.

During the radio session, Dr Leong pointed out that the novel coronavirus is “highly pathogenic, very virulent and spreads very, very fast”, hence making it worse than SARS.

However, SARS has a higher mortality rate. In Singapore, the pandemic claimed the lives of 33 people in the span of just about three months.

Previously infected with SARS

During the 2003 SARS pandemic, Dr Leong was one of the infected persons after he attended a conference in New York. The then 32-year-old man told that he had fever while he was in the conference.

This resulted in him being taken off his flight back to Singapore, and kept in an isolation ward for two-and-a-half weeks in Frankfurt, Germany.

It appears that he had contracted the virus after attending to the first SARS patient at Tan Tock Seng Hospital just a few days earlier.

This happened in the beginning of March when SARS had just started to spread in Singapore, and when the disease could not be understood well enough yet.

In 2015, Dr Leong told The New Paper that he “didn’t know if [he] was going to live to the next day” and that his “life just flashed before [him]”.

Singapore is better prepared

However, Dr Leong believes that the city-state is better prepared now to deal with the novel coronavirus compared to SARS period.

“Singapore is really, really prepared. After SARS, so many protocols were written up, we’ve considered all scenarios,” he said.

Earlier on 23 January, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also said that Singapore is now “much better prepared” to handle a new virus since the SARS outbreak.

“After SARS, we made a thorough review of what of the facilities we had – the infrastructure, hospitals, isolation wards, and the scientific testing and capabilities,” explained PM Lee.

He continued, “I think we are much better prepared now,” while mentioning about the new National Centre for Infectious Diseases, which opened in late 2018.

Masks needed for prevention

During the radio session, Dr Leong also pointed out a number of prevention measures that people can take to avoid contracting the deadly virus.

One of his main tips is to practice good hygiene and to keep in your mind that “your face is sacred”. He explained that the novel coronavirus is transmitted through droplets or contact of a surface, and can stay alive on a surface between 30 to 60 minutes.

As such, it is important that one should not touch one’s face, nose, eyes or mouth before washing hands, Dr Leong noted.

Another important tip that he mentioned was to wear masks as it protects both you and the person in front of you. He added that N95 masks work as well but it is discouraged as they are uncomfortable to wear.

Dr Leong also said that people should wear a mask if they have to go to a clinic, and be sure to wash their hands after touching any surface.

However, on 30 Jan, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong revealed at a news conference that Singaporeans should refrain from hoarding masks and only wear them if they are unwell and need to see a doctor.

Those who are well, do not need to don a mask and would be better protected by washing hands with soap and water regularly, the 4G leaders said at the conference.

Minister Wong said this after more than five million masks released to retailers “snapped up in hours” each time a batch of these were put up for sale over the past nine days.

He said that this had happened despite retailers limiting sales to one box per customer. “The current rate of consumption of masks in Singapore is not sustainable… especially with the global shortage and the likely export bans,” he said.

Echoing the same point, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also pointed out in a Facebook post on Thursday evening, where he highlighted the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) advice to only need to wear a mask if we are sick.

“We will continue to monitor the situation closely and do more if necessary. Meanwhile, we should all remain calm. All of us can do our part to limit transmission of germs by practicing good hygiene,” he said.

He continued, “Was your hands regularly, and seek medical active early and wear a mask if you feel unwell. But in general, there is no need to wear a mask if you are not ill.”

Save the facemasks for the real war that will come

The irony of Dr Leong stating that masks are needed to protect one from the virus while the Singapore government stating otherwise was also highlighted by former People’s Power Party candidate for Chua Chu Kang GRC in the 2011 General Election, Mr Augustin Lee Zixu.

Sharing an article by Mothership that talks about Dr Leong’s radio session, Mr Lee wrote: “Doctor who had contracted SARS says wear mask to prevent but PM [s]ays no need. How har?”

However, Dr Leong clarified in a comment in Mr Lee’s post that he advocates for not wearing masks now.

“Save it for the real war that will come.” said Dr Leong and added, “Let’s be realistic. If we use masks indiscriminately, we would consume our masks now and leave nothing for protection when it is eventually need.”

He argued that if China, the biggest factory in the world asks for help from the European Union, “What of Singapore? A small fry in the battle for masks.”

He warns, “Make no mistake. The 2019 novel coronavirus has a very good chance of causing local transmission. Using the masks now is like shooting at ghosts. Don’t waste ammunition.”

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