GPs, polyclinics seeing rise in patients with flu-like symptoms as some let guard down

Some people are beginning to let their guard down as the pandemic drags on. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Some doctors have been seeing an increase in the number of patients seeking treatment for flu-like symptoms in the past few weeks, largely due to the flu season and a faltering resolve to comply with Covid-19 precautionary measures.

According to the Ministry of Health's Weekly Infectious Disease Bulletin in 2020, polyclinics saw less than half the number of patients for acute respiratory infections (ARIs) than in the previous year.

The cases were kept low because of good personal hygiene, mask wearing and social distancing, but some people are beginning to let their guard down as the pandemic drags on.

A spike in ARI cases emerged last month, with a daily average of 869 cases in the first week of January, and rising to a daily average of 1,423 cases from Jan 17 to 23.

ARI symptoms include nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, and cough.

A check by The Straits Times with several general practitioners (GPs) indicated an uptick in the number of ARI cases within the past few weeks, especially among children.

Dr Quah Soon Wee, a family physician at Crossroads Family Clinic, said this could be due to intermingling of pupils in schools, since the new school year opened earlier last month.

Around 20 per cent to 30 per cent of his patients were children, though he noted that his clinic, which is located in a new estate in Tampines North, generally has a higher number of pre-schoolers.

He reported between 50 and 60 ARI cases weekly in January, up from an average of 30 cases per week in December.

"One reason for the increase in ARI cases could be due to more people going out and meeting others since phase three began (on Dec 28)," said Dr Quah.

Some of the patients could also be heeding advice to seek medical attention early for ARI symptoms, he added.

Infectious diseases experts have urged the public to see a doctor if they are experiencing ARI symptoms, and not to assume that it is just the common flu, which was the case in the recent Covid-19 cluster linked to a police para-vet as the four cases did not seek medical treatment despite feeling unwell.

Dr John Cheng, family physician and head of primary care at Healthway Medical Group, said both its GP clinics and paediatric arm, SBCC Baby and Child Clinic, have also been seeing more ARI cases among children.

"Children are more prone to influenza infections compared to adults, and the higher likelihood of transmission is due to the fact that children would be less mindful of hygiene compared to adults," he said.

While children under the age of 13 are not required to do a swab test for Covid-19, Dr Cheng said he "strongly advised" them to go for it to minimise the risk of community transmission.

He added that the general increase in ARI cases could also be attributed to the rainy weather in January and the peak flu season in Singapore, which is typically between December and February.

"As a result of the cooler weather, viruses may be surviving longer and hence, it could be spreading more widely," he said.

"In addition, people who have chosen to stay indoors due to the rainy season may be in closer proximity to one another in an enclosed space, which could allow the flu virus to spread more easily as well."

Concurring, Dr Michael Wong, family physician and consultant at Raffles Medical, said that its Siglap Centre clinic has seen a rise of 10 per cent to 20 per cent more patients seeking treatment for ARIs in recent weeks, many of whom were children.

He added that the year-end festivities - despite the Covid-19 safe management measures - could have led to more opportunities for viral transmission, due to more social gatherings.

With the upcoming Chinese New Year festivities, he advised people to avoid sharing food and to use separate eating utensils.

Some doctors also attributed the increase in ARI cases to a sense of fatigue and a sense of complacency in adhering to Covid-19 measures.

Dr Tan Teck Jack, medical director of Northeast Medical Group, said that while safe distancing and hand washing have been well-emphasised, it may be "occasionally neglected" due to fatigue and a false sense of security, especially since Covid-19 community cases here have generally remained low.

However, people should not let their guard down, as there is still a fear that there may be undetected cases in the community, he warned.

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