SINGAPORE: While Singapore has sufficient capacity in its healthcare system to handle the COVID-19 outbreak, the country cannot be complacent and needs to preserve its buffer capacity, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said on Wednesday (Mar 25).
Addressing Singapore’s COVID-19 situation in Parliament, he said that with a significant number of imported cases from returning residents and visitors, the authorities have progressively put in place travel restrictions and placed returning residents on stay-home notice and quarantine.
READ: Returning Singapore residents from UK, US to serve stay-home notices at hotels
However, there is still a risk of them leading to more localised transmissions, he said. As more clusters emerge, the authorities’ contact tracing, quarantine and healthcare resources will be stretched, he cautioned.
“If the clusters grow too large, such as those we see in the Life Church and Grace Assembly of God or SAFRA Jurong, if we have a few of them at the same time, it will be very difficult to contain them effectively, and the pressure on our healthcare system will increase,” he said.
“While we still have sufficient capacity in our healthcare system today, we cannot be complacent and we will need to preserve our buffer capacity.”
Mr Gan was responding to Members of Parliament who asked about healthcare capacity.
While outlining what is being done to ensure sufficient capacity, Mr Gan also provided assurance on Singapore’s testing capabilities.
To date, Singapore has performed around 39,000 COVID-19 tests.
“This translates to 6,800 tests per million people in Singapore, compared with around 6,500 in South Korea, and 1,000 in Taiwan. These tests are important in helping us to detect as many cases as possible and as early as possible,” he said.
TAPPING ON PRIVATE CAPACITY
The Ministry of Health (MOH) is tapping on private capacity and setting up community care facilities, Mr Gan said.
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,” he said.
He gave the example of the collaboration with Concord International Hospital, which started accepting well and stable COVID-19 patients about and a week ago.
Mount Elizabeth Hospital saw its first such patient on Monday, Mr Gan added.
MOH is also converting some Government Quarantine Facilities for this purpose, starting with D’Resort, which has a maximum capacity of about 500, he said.
“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.
Previously, all confirmed COVID-19 cases, regardless of severity, were admitted to hospitals, and remained there until they were tested negative for the virus twice, over a duration of 24 hours, an approach Mr Gan described as “conservative”, at a time when there was little knowledge about the severity of COVID-19.
However, given that the ministry now knows that about 80 per cent of COVID-19 cases are mild to moderate, “what we need really are isolation facilities to prevent them from infecting others, until they are free of the virus”, he said.
“Many of the COVID-19 cases in our hospitals experience mild symptoms, no more than that of flu. They only require limited medical care,” he said.
Mr Gan said that these patients who are discharged to other facilities will continue to be quarantined and closely monitored, so there is no risk of general public in the community being exposed to these cases while they are there.
Similar to cases admitted to the hospital, patients will be closely monitored for symptoms and repeatedly tested for the virus, Mr Gan said.
He added that only when they have fully recovered and tested negative for the virus twice over a duration of 24 hours, will they be discharged back into the community.
“At this point, they no longer have any risk of transmitting the virus to others as they have fully recovered,” he said.
“Rest assured that any Singaporean who requires medical care, whether for COVID-19 or other illnesses, will receive the necessary treatment and care.”
PAST INVESTMENTS TO ENSURE CAPACITY
Singapore has invested “significantly” in the past to ensure that it has sufficient healthcare capacity to manage infectious outbreaks, Mr Gan said.
The 330-bed National Centre of Infectious Diseases was purpose-built with spare capacity, and can be further increased to more than 500 beds if necessary, he said.
To preserve capacity and resources for those who most need it, clinicians at public hospitals had earlier reviewed their patients and deferred non-urgent appointments and elective procedures where clinically appropriate to do so, Mr Gan added.
MOH is also exploring collaborations with private hospitals for some non-COVID-19 patients to be cared there instead.
Patients transferred to private hospitals through these collaborations will continue to pay similar rates they would have paid at public hospitals, he said.
Mr Gan also gave recognition to the work put in by healthcare workers.
“We recognise the heavy workload and stress that our healthcare workers face every day. The surge in patient load due to COVID-19 means that some are taking on longer shifts, while others are required to take on additional roles,” he said.
To ensure the well-being of our healthcare workers, institutions will make sure that their staff are well-rested and have put in place a series of measures to reduce staff burnout, such as counselling services and peer support programmes, Mr Gan said.
“Most importantly, every case we can avoid will help to lighten their load. Hence each of us can help by doing the right thing to reduce the risk of local transmission,” he said.
He thanked Singaporeans for their resilience, understanding and support in adapting to new measures and changes quickly and putting up with inconveniences and disruptions to their daily lives for the sake of other Singaporeans and our community.
With the global situation still evolving, and the number of cases rising rapidly, Singapore must prepare to see more cases here too in time to come, he said.
“We must work together and do what we can to keep the number of local cases down,” he said.