SINGAPORE—In light of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, Singapore must preserve the “buffer capacity” in its healthcare system and direct its critical hospital resources to the more severe cases, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Wednesday (Mar 25).
The health minister delivered a statement in Parliament on the situation in Singapore amidst the global pandemic. Mr Gan noted that Singapore currently does have sufficient capacity in its healthcare system to handle the COVID-19 outbreak, but the country must not be “complacent” and needs to properly focus resources where they are most needed.
In his speech, the minister spoke on current measures and Singapore’s testing rate. He also outlined the new measures the Ministry of Health (MOH) is rolling out to free up resources and space for more serious COVID-19 cases—tapping on community care centres and other facilities to treat well and stable COVID-19 patients, as well as collaborations with private hospitals for non-COVID-19 treatments.
Mr Gan also spoke of Singapore’s testing capabilities, noting that Singapore has performed around 39,000 COVID-19 tests so far, which are “important in helping us to detect as many cases as possible and as early as possible”.
The government’s data shows that the testing rate is around 6,800 tests per one million people in Singapore. For comparison, South Korea has tested around 6,500 and Taiwan has tested 1,000 persons per one million people.
In his statement, Mr Gan affirmed that Singapore will continue to respond progressively to the outbreak, updating its travel restrictions and placing returning residents on mandatory Stay-Home notices, quarantine and Leaves of Absences.
Despite those measures, he remarked that there is still a risk more localised transmissions, and when more clusters are identified, healthcare resources such as contact tracing and quarantining will be stretched.
When asked about Singapore’s healthcare capacity, minister Gan said that “if the clusters grow too large … if we have a few of them at the same time, it will be very difficult to contain them effectively”. He added that this would increase the pressure on the country’s healthcare system.
“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 said in Parliament.
To preserve the buffer capacity in the country’s healthcare system, MOH is setting up community care facilities for non-critical patients and calling on private hospitals for the treatment of non-COVID-19 patients.
“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,” Mr Gan said in his statement.
Concord International Hospital and Mount Elizabeth Hospital are just two of the private hospitals accepting COVID-19 patients who are not seriously ill. Meanwhile, MOH will be converting and using some Government Quarantine Facilities, such as D’Resort, which can hold up to 500 patients.
Mr Gan noted that Singaporean residents and long-term pass holders who will be transferred to the newly-appointed 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”.
Shedding light on how the MOH previously handled confirmed COVID-19 cases, the health minister said that all cases, be they mild or severe, were taken to hospitals and admitted there until two tests over a duration of 24 hours showed them to be negative for the virus.
Mr Gan is now calling the past response “conservative”, and now that the ministry has determined that 80 per cent of COVID-19 infections are mild to moderate cases, “what we need really are isolation facilities to prevent them from infecting others, until they are free of the virus”.
He noted that many COVID-19 cases in Singapore’s hospitals are mild cases that only require “limited medical care”. Patients such as these will be transferred to the quarantine facilities, where they will not pose a risk to the general public and will continue to be monitored and treated properly, until they fully recover and test negative for the virus twice in 24 hours, which is when they will be discharged.
Past investments and collaborations with private hospitals
Mr Gan spoke of Singapore’s past investments to ensure that it has sufficient healthcare capacity to handle infectious outbreaks such as this one. He cited that the National Centre of Infectious Diseases was built with spare capacity of 330 beds, which can be stretched to handle more than 500 beds if necessary.
At public hospitals, appointments that are not emergencies and elective procedures are being deferred, “where clinically appropriate to do so” to make way for COVID-19 emergencies.
MOH is also looking at working with private hospitals, where non-COVID-19 patients can be treated. The minister noted that patients who fall under the scheme will continue to pay public hospital rates should they be transferred to a private hospital.
Recognition and support for healthcare workers
“We recognise the heavy workload and stress that our healthcare workers face every day,” said Mr Gan.
“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 added.
Mr Gan underlined the importance of caring for our frontline healthcare workers who are putting themselves at risk in the fight against the virus. He noted that institutions have put measures in place to combat exhaustion and staff burnout and will ensure that staff will be sufficiently rested and have access to services such as counselling and peer support programmes.
“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,” Mr Gan emphasised.
Words for Singaporeans
In his ministerial statement, Mr Gan also spoke to the people, expressing gratitude to Singaporeans for showing support, understanding and resilience as they change their lives to make way for the new, strict measures the government has put in place to combat COVID-19.
He encouraged Singaporeans to keep following official advise from the ministry and assured the public that all Singaporeans will be given the medical care they need amidst this global pandemic.
“Rest assured that any Singaporean who requires medical care, whether for COVID-19 or other illnesses, will receive the necessary treatment and care,” Mr Gan affirmed.
“We must work together and do what we can to keep the number of local cases down,” he said.