Right time for some easing of Covid-19 measures: Experts
They cite vaccination rate as key, but one specialist warns it could overload healthcare system
It has been almost two weeks since tightened restrictions kicked in under phase two (heightened alert), and some infectious disease experts believe that safety measures could be eased come the halfway point this week.
On July 22, Singapore adopted heightened safety measures that will last until August 18.
The measures were put in place following rising community infections linked to the KTV cluster and the Jurong Fishery Port cluster.
Currently, dining in is not allowed and the group size for social gatherings has been reduced from five to two, among other measures.
Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who is co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic, had said the measures will be reviewed after two weeks and adjustments would be considered depending on the Covid-19 situation.
Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, told The New Paper yesterday: "I believe Singapore is ready for some easing, given that we should have more than 65 per cent of the people fully vaccinated by the end of this week, with an additional 15 per cent to have received their first dose."
The Ministry of Health (MOH) said 62 per cent of the population had been fully vaccinated as at Sunday, and 77 per cent had received at least one dose of a vaccine.
Prof Teo suggested a differentiated degree of relaxation between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.
For example, those vaccinated could be permitted to engage in larger social gatherings and take part in higher-risk fitness activities.
He noted that unvaccinated individuals remain at risk of severe repercussions when infected with Covid-19, and there is a need to moderate their activities to protect them.
Dr Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia-Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, agreed, saying that careful easing of measures is "unlikely to have a major public health impact".
"The UK has shown what happens when a highly vaccinated population lifts restrictions - a small rise in mild cases especially among the young, unvaccinated population but no impact on deaths or severe cases.
"Hopefully that will be the case in Singapore too," Dr Tambyah added.
The Health Ministry yesterday reported eight new Covid-19 clusters, taking the total of active clusters in the country to 100. It also reported 98 cases in the community, of which, 31 were unlinked.
Dr Tambyah said such high numbers of community cases should be accepted in the long run as part of an endemic Covid-19.
He said: "This is what we see for other infectious diseases such as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) and dengue. For example, there are currently 64 dengue clusters under surveillance right now.
"We have well-designed strategies to identify the severe dengue cases in these clusters and take preventative action. The same will be true of Covid-19 and other endemic infectious diseases."
Associate Professor Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at NUS' Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, added: "We need to be ready for the possibility of hundreds or potentially even thousands of infections a day during the endemic stage.
"However, with high vaccination rates, the number of severe cases of the disease, rather than the number of infections, is what we care most about."
Explaining why there have been many unlinked cases over the past few weeks, Prof Cook said: "Vaccination may actually make contact tracing harder, because vaccinated people who get a 'breakthrough infection' are much more likely to be asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, so they may not be identified as a case that needs testing.
"In the long run, contact tracing in its current form may no longer be viable for that reason. Because with high vaccination rates, we wouldn't expect to isolate vaccinated cases in hospitals or community facilities like we do now."
Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said the rise in community cases is a reflection of the transmissibility of the Delta variant.
He believes it is "unlikely" that the restrictions will be lifted any time soon.
"The most important factor is whether our healthcare system is overloaded. When we ease up, we will have more cases. This will burden our already stretched hospital situation," Dr Leong explained.
"The protection of unvaccinated children below 12 should also be a factor when making the decision.
"Just imagine the disaster if a primary school becomes an epicentre of the pandemic. So no, I do not think restrictions can be eased just yet."