Tightened Covid-19 measures in S'pore may seem tough, but better to be safe than sorry

Most of the vaccines in use are believed to give some protection against mutations. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore has had unlinked cases in the past and venues visited by infected people have been publicised, but that's about all.

This time, however, such places will be shut down for two days to undergo deep cleaning.

The big question is why? It can't be just that there are more community cases.

Eight of the 13 infections forming the cluster at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) are patients who have not been roaming around, so essentially only the five staff members are of concern.

Similarly, the cluster around the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority officer was isolated the moment he was diagnosed.

One possible reason it is different this time could be the fear that this outbreak may be caused by a viral variant of concern. These are mutations that are believed to spread more easily and cause more severe illness.

There are three such mutations - the B117 from Britain, the B1351 from South Africa and the P1 from Brazil. All are of concern and have been identified from imported cases. The variants in India are also worrying given the spread of Covid-19 in the country, although they have yet to be named variants of concern.

Could one of these mutated strains have leaked into the community? Is that why TTSH staff who had been fully vaccinated have been infected?

Dr Asok Kurup, who chairs the Academy of Medicine's Chapter of Infectious Disease Physicians, said: "I think we are dealing with a variant or variants which are likely highly transmissible."

The genome sequence of the virus that spread at TTSH has yet to be completed, so his comment cannot be verified.

Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, the Health Ministry's director of medical services, said these processes take time but the possibility cannot be discounted.

So the deep cleaning of venues may be a reflection of being kiasu, but this attitude has brought Singapore through the pandemic relatively unscathed.

Yes, there have been tens of thousands of infections and 30 deaths, but compared with most countries, Singapore has done well.

If the deep cleaning is not needed, well, it is an unnecessary inconvenience. But if the infections are linked to one of the more easily spread mutations, it would be too late to take action by the time the results were available.

So frankly, it is far better to take some unnecessary action if such action can help slow the spread of Covid-19 in the community.

Guard against complacency

The latest increase in community cases is also a stark warning to people not to become complacent once they have received both vaccine jabs.

Yes, the vaccine does give significant protection, but even at best, that is 95 per cent protection against severe illness.

What this means is that out of 20 people who have been fully vaccinated, one could get very sick with Covid-19 should transmission occur within the country.

Others might get infected and be mildly sick or even have no symptoms, but there is no guarantee that they will not pass the virus on to someone else.

Furthermore, even with the same vaccine, the level of neutralising antibodies varies with individuals. Some will get higher protection than others.

And this is with reference to the basic viral strain before mutations complicate the equation.

While most of the vaccines in use are believed to give some protection against mutations, the level of protection can vary.

Still, vaccinations remain critical as they provide an important protective layer, experts said.

They not only reduce the risk of severe illness, but also help to break the chain of transmission should there be an outbreak.

Said Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health: "People who are symptomatic are more likely to spread Covid-19 than those who are asymptomatic."

So if only about one in 10 to 20 people infected gets sick, there will be far fewer spreading the disease.

Professor Ooi Eng Eong of the Duke-NUS Medical School agreed that "the best way to safeguard our individual health and, at the same time, reduce the risk of outbreaks in Singapore, is to have as many as possible vaccinated and thus protected from Covid-19".

This is especially so for older people with underlying medical problems who could suffer more severe illness if they get infected.

Experts also urged that safety measures such as wearing masks, social distancing and frequently washing or sanitising hands be kept up even as more people get vaccinated.

Around 1.36 million people here had received at least one dose of the vaccine as at April 18, and about 850,000 have had both.

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said: "We have always known that the vaccination does not provide absolute protection from infection... I expect we will see a few cases of vaccine breakthrough."

He added: "This is the reason why vaccination alone is not the answer to ensuring good control of the outbreak, and there is a need to couple that with sound public health measures like mask wearing and being conscientious about our own health status."

Hence, the Government's decision to remind people on April 30 that the visiting quotas already in place should be adhered to.

Education Minister Lawrence Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19, said: "This is the only way we can ensure that we slow down the spread of the virus in the community.

"And we have to be mentally prepared, too, that if the situation were to worsen, despite all that we are doing and despite all the new restrictions, we may have to consider further tightening and significantly reducing interactions in the community with more stringent measures."

But if everyone cooperates, perhaps further tightening can be avoided and people here can, with some restrictions, continue life with a great deal of normalcy.