Coronavirus: Singapore has chance to slow down spread of virus, says Gan Kim Yong

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong
Health Minister Gan Kim Yong

It aims to avoid sharp spike in cases, while ensuring outbreak does not last too long

Singapore aims to get through the coronavirus outbreak by attempting to avoid a sharp spike in cases, while ensuring that the epidemic does not last too long, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said yesterday.

In a ministerial statement, he laid out two strategies drawn up by academics to tackle the pandemic: Establishing herd immunity, and flattening the curve.

In the first scenario, the Government does nothing and the number of cases rises rapidly, Mr Gan told Parliament. In theory, most of the population gets infected and becomes immune, following which infection rates would slow down as the population becomes more immune, or a vaccine or cure is found.

"This scenario may seem attractive - you get over with it very quickly - but there are unfortunately two major risks," he said.

It is not yet clear that this immunity will be effective or sustained.

And an uncontrolled spike in the number of cases in a short period will overwhelm the healthcare system, easily resulting in high mortality rates. This was seen in China's Hubei province and Italy, and is increasingly becoming the case in other countries, Mr Gan said, adding: "There is no turning back once we are on this track."

An alternative strategy, known as flattening the curve, works by introducing stringent safe distancing and other measures to slow down the infection rate.

Although infection numbers will still grow, Singapore will end up with a lower peak of infections if this is done right. "But by flattening the curve, we may actually stretch out the pandemic, meaning it will take longer for the pandemic to be over," Mr Gan said.

Singapore is still at the start of the curve today, and has a chance to adopt neither strategy, he added. "We hope that if we do it right, we can significantly slow down the growth as much as we can, until the pandemic is over, without either a sharp peak or long tail," he said.

"This may sound impossible because these are the two curves that are established by academics. But as impossible as it may sound, we have to try our best to do so."

To achieve this, Singapore is strengthening efforts to detect cases early and start the contact tracing process as soon as possible, the minister said. The authorities have expanded contact tracing capacity from three teams at the start of the outbreak, to 20 teams today, in preparation for the expected surge in cases in the coming weeks.

TAKING A DIFFERENT APPROACH

We hope that if we do it right, we can significantly slow down the growth as much as we can, until the pandemic is over, without either a sharp peak or long tail... This may sound impossible because these are the two curves that are established by academics. But as impossible as it may sound, we have to try our best to do so.

HEALTH MINISTER GAN KIM YONG

They can now trace up to 4,000 contacts every day, and will continue to scale up capacity as needed, Mr Gan said.

Singapore is also leveraging technology to supplement contact tracing efforts, like the newly launched TraceTogether smartphone app, he added. The app can identify people who have been in close proximity - that is, within 2m for at least 30 minutes - to coronavirus patients, using wireless Bluetooth technology.

Mr Gan also said that people's daily actions will go a long way in winning the war against the virus, urging people to see a doctor and stay home if they are unwell, and to wash their hands regularly.

He noted that a few local clusters emerged when people who were unwell or on medical leave did not minimise social contact and continued going to work or for social activities.

"Studies on Covid-19 have shown that for each ill person who behaves responsibly, we can protect two to three others from being infected," he said.

Safe distancing measures are in place, he added, describing them as extra "brakes" to slow transmission of the virus, prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed, help bring the number of cases back down and protect seniors.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 26, 2020, with the headline 'S'pore has chance to slow down spread of virus: Gan'. Print Edition | Subscribe