Singapore says the number of coronavirus cases in the city-state “will continue to rise” over the coming weeks as some overseas citizens return home from around the world.
The top three sources of importation are the United Kingdom, the U.S., and Indonesia, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong told parliament on Wednesday, after the number of local cases more than doubled in the past week. The city-state gets about 1,200 residents returning, just from the U.K. and the U.S., every day, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said in the same session.
Their comments come a day after Singapore introduced its strictest measures yet to combat the spread of the coronavirus, including plans to shut bars and cinemas, and suspend religious services.
Coronavirus cases in the city-state have surged in recent weeks as citizens and long-term pass holders later found to be carrying the disease return. On Tuesday, the government reported an additional 49 cases, of which 32 were imported, bringing the total since the start of the outbreak to 558.
Singapore is at a “critical phase” in its fight against the virus and the nation has to be prepared for a lengthy battle, Wong told parliament, as he shed tears when he spoke of the sacrifices made by healthcare workers in the city-state. He and Gan helm a ministerial task force to combat the virus outbreak in the country.
“We are only at the beginning of a very long fight. This will continue for many more months, till the end of the year, and perhaps even beyond,” Wong said, noting it’s been more than two months since work against the disease also known as Covid-19 started.
“The coronavirus is without a doubt the biggest threat the world and Singapore has faced for decades.”
Government leaders have said that more severe measures are in the cards if there’s wider local transmission, such as suspending schools and closing workplaces, aside from those providing essential services.
Singapore is focusing resources on the large numbers of returning overseas citizens to identify symptoms early at the airport and expand testing capacity.
There’s “no telling how long this current wave of returnees and imported cases will last” since more countries are on lockdowns and many Singapore residents may want to return, Wong said.
Singapore also can’t just rely on tests alone as an individual tested negative at the point of entry may simply be incubating the virus and could develop symptoms over the following days, he added. The government needs to isolate returnees and placed them on stay home notices, with 38,000 people now under such orders.
Recent measures and the focus on oversees returnees are meant to prevent widespread local transmission. A “greater concern” would be the number of locally transmitted cases, especially those that are unlinked and Singapore is seeing more such cases, Wong said.
“So we will keep the measures under constant review. If the situation worsens, we will apply extra brakes; if the situation improves, we may be able to ease off a little bit, but not go back to baseline, perhaps to a less stringent set of measures because the pandemic will probably still not be over for quite some time,” he added.
Health Minister Gan also told parliament that the government will continue to explore the use of alternative isolation facilities besides public hospitals to care for virus patients who are well and stable.
Gan said that while Singapore currently still has sufficient capacity in its health care system, the country cannot be complacent and will need to preserve buffer capacity. He said that as more clusters emerge, the country’s contact-tracing, quarantine and health care resources will be stretched.
For alternative isolation facilities for patients with mild symptoms, the government is tapping on private capacity and setting up community care facilities, according to Gan. The city-state is also converting some government quarantine locations for this purpose.
Furthermore, a 330-bed infectious disease facility that was purpose-built after the 2003 SARS crisis can be increased to over 500 beds if necessary, he said.
Gan added that to date, Singapore has done about 39,000 tests for the disease. That translates to 6,800 tests per million people in Singapore, he said.
(Adds National Development Minister Lawrence Wong’s comments)
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