Contact tracing made faster, testing capacity expanded to control Covid-19 spread: Lawrence Wong

Efforts are being taken to make contact tracing faster, and scale up testing capacity. ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

SINGAPORE - While the Covid-19 pandemic has overwhelmed healthcare systems around the world, the Government is determined to ensure Singapore does not suffer the same fate.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (June 9) said efforts are being taken to make contact tracing faster, and scale up testing capacity - including testing wastewater for viral fragments, to tell if a specific group has infected people among them.

"Covid-19 is the most serious health crisis the world has faced in a century. We have all seen the devastating effects of the virus worldwide. When the outbreak gets out of control, the spike in cases can quickly overwhelm the healthcare system. Many people will not get the care they need, and the number of deaths will rise sharply," said Mr Wong in a national broadcast recorded from the National Centre for Infectious Diseases.

"We are determined to avoid the same fate in Singapore. That's why we've been going all-out to control the spread of the virus, and to ensure that our healthcare system is able to care for all who are infected."

"Working together, we've stabilised the situation in the migrant worker dormitories. We've brought down community cases significantly. We've protected our seniors, and kept our fatality rates low."

More than 38,000 people in Singapore have been infected with Covid-19. Many new cases are being reported daily, the majority of whom are foreign workers linked to dormitories. On Tuesday, the country reported 218 new cases - the lowest daily tally since April 11.

With the circuit breaker to stem the chains of transmission lifted on June 2, the economy is reopening in three phases. Mr Wong explained this "very cautious" approach in his speech.

"The vast majority of our population have not been exposed to the virus and are still vulnerable to the disease. We want to continue to provide maximum protection for our seniors and those with medical conditions."

If conditions seem stable, Singapore might move into phase two before the end of the month.

This would see a broader range of activities resumed, covering nearly the whole economy. Social interactions and family visits in groups of up to five people would also be allowed.

"Externally, we are carefully easing travel restrictions and re-opening our borders, by creating 'green lanes' with selected countries. These arrangements will be limited to essential travel for work reasons, and tight controls will be put in place. When conditions permit, we will extend 'green lanes' to more countries, and to non-business travellers."

He added: "But it will take a while before we see international air travel recovering in a significant way, or before we can open up for mass market travel."

As more activities resume, Singaporeans should be "mentally prepared" to see more new cases, said Mr Wong, noting that this happened in other countries emerging from their lockdowns.

"The key is whether we are able to keep community infection rates stable. If so, we can continue on the path of progressive easing."

If cases rise sharply, however, the re-opening of the economy will have to be slower, and some restrictions might be tightened.

Mr Wong said efforts have been taken to make contact tracing faster - for example by expanding the contact tracing teams to include personnel from the Police and Singapore Armed Forces. He also pointed to the use of technology such as the SafeEntry check-in/check-out system and TraceTogether app on smartphones, as well as wearable Bluetooth devices that are being developed.

"These will work on their own without the need for a phone. You can conveniently wear or carry them around as you go about your daily activities," he said of the devices.

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Meanwhile, the Government is procuring more test kits, increasing lab capacity, and recruiting and training more people to carry out swabs and take blood samples.

"In early April, we were doing about 2,000 tests a day. Now, we are able to conduct about 13,000 tests a day, and we are on track to reach 40,000 tests a day in the coming months," said Mr Wong.

He described this expanded testing capacity as "critical".

"It means that we can test higher-risk groups more extensively. We can also do more surveillance testing in the community, including those with respiratory symptoms. This will give us a faster and more accurate sense of the number of cases circulating undetected.

"Besides the standard testing methods, we are deploying other means of detection. For example, we are extracting wastewater from manholes to test for viral fragments. This provides an additional indicator to tell us if a specific group, such as those living in a dormitory, has infected people among them.

"We are also using serology tests. These help to identify those who were previously infected but may have since recovered, and have developed antibodies in response that can help them fight the virus."

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