COVID-19: S’pore expands contact tracing capacity, taps on private practice to alleviate public hospitals’ load

Singapore has expanded its contact tracing capacity in a bid to manage the emergence of potential new COVID-19 clusters in the coming weeks, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Wed (25 Mar).

Addressing Parliament on the Whole-of-Government’s response to the current COVID-19 situation in Singapore, Mr Gan said that the number of contact tracing teams has increased from three to 20 to date as a result of “manpower support” from public service agencies including the Singapore Armed Forces.

“We can now trace up to 4,000 contacts each day, and will continue to scale up our contact tracing capacity as needed,” he said.

Citing the launch of the TraceTogether app, a joint initiative between the Ministry of Health (MOH) and GovTech, Mr Gan added that Singapore is also utilising technology to boost contact tracing efforts.

In terms of treatment capacity, Mr Gan said that Singapore will move away from the “conservative approach” of hospitalising all confirmed COVID-19 cases “regardless of severity” in favour of focusing “critical hospital resources on the seriously ill, to minimise the number of fatalities”.

“We took this conservative approach early on in this epidemic, as there was little knowledge about the severity of the disease, and we wanted to find out more. However, we now know that about 80% of COVID-19 cases are mild to moderate.

“That means many of the COVID-19 cases in our hospitals experience mild symptoms, no more than that of flu. They only require limited medical care, and what we need really are isolation facilities to prevent them from infecting others, until they are free of the virus,” he said.

Mr Gan said that MOH will be “tapping on private capacity” such as the collaboration with Concord International Hospital, which started accepting well and stable COVID-19 patients last Fri and Mount Elizabeth Hospital, which saw its first patient on Mon to alleviate some of the load placed on public hospitals.

“As per public hospitals, Singaporean residents and long-term pass holders transferred to these facilities will continue to receive free-of-charge testing and treatment, except for those who have travelled overseas despite the travel advisory and contracted the infection while overseas,” he said.

Patients at these facilities, said Mr Gan, will continue to be quarantined and closely monitored to avoid risking exposure to the general public in the community while they visit the said facilities.

“Similar to cases admitted to the hospital, patients will be closely monitored for symptoms and repeatedly tested for the virus. Only when they have fully recovered and tested negative for the virus twice over a period of 24 hours, will they be discharged back into the community,” said Mr Gan.

At this point, said the Health Minister, such patients will no longer pose any risk of transmitting the virus to others, as they have fully recovered.

“We will continue to explore the use of such isolation facilities for our well and stable COVID-19 patients. This way, we can focus our critical hospital resources on the seriously ill, to minimise the number of fatalities,” said Mr Gan, adding that “any Singaporean who requires medical care, whether for COVID-19 or other illnesses, will receive the necessary treatment and care”.

The Health Minister noted that Singapore has recorded 558 confirmed cases to date, with two fatalities.

155 of the cases have been discharged, and most of the rest remain stable or are improving, he added.

Social distancing has also been part of the Government’s primary means of preventing further spread of COVID-19 in Singapore.

Touching on the Government’s latest safe distancing measures, Lawrence Wong, National Development Minister and co-chair of the multi-ministry taskforce on COVID-19, told a press conference at the National Press Centre yesterday (24 Mar) that the Government will now limit gatherings outside of work and schools to 10 persons or fewer at a time from the previous limit of 250.

Mr Wong added that the Government will also enforce physical distancing of at least one metre in “settings where interactions are non-transient”.

“So with that as a guiding principle, we will close all bars and entertainment venues like nightclubs, discos, cinemas, theatres and karaoke outlets where there is a higher risk of transmission due to sustained close contact over a period of time,” he said.

Other public venues “where the contact is more transient” such as malls, museums and attractions — while permitted to stay open — will be subject to “additional restrictions”.

“We will continue to keep open food and beverage venues, but again with restrictions that we have already introduced, namely to have sufficient separation between tables, but now we will also restrict the groups of diners to 10 persons or fewer,” said Mr Wong.

Centre-based tuition and other similar classes, as well as religious services regardless of size, will be suspended for the time being, he added.

Singaporeans are encouraged to apply a similar quota to social gatherings, including private events such as birthday celebrations and weddings.

“We advise all Singaporeans to avoid holding or participating in social events or gatherings involving more than 10 persons at any one time. This will include private celebrations like birthdays and weddings,” said Mr Wong.

The above measures will take effect from tomorrow night (26 Mar) at 11.59 pm.

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