Covid-19 measures in Singapore should ease once Omicron peaks, some curbs no longer effective: Experts

Singapore's Omicron surge is likely to peak in about a month's time. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore should be able to ease restrictions further once the current Omicron surge peaks, said several experts. This is likely to be in about a month's time.

The streamlining of some measures suggested by the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19, such as allowing multiple groups of five people to visit each day, is unlikely to impact overall numbers, they said.

Some also suggested that there is little reason today to cap the number of vaccinated travellers entering the country.

It makes sense to open up in small steps, given the current surge in cases, and more importantly, deaths, the experts said. But the restrictions could be reviewed once the current wave has subsided, they added.

As at Wednesday (Feb 16), 98 people in Singapore have died of Covid-19 since Jan 1.

Commenting on the deaths, Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, an infectious diseases expert at the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said: "It depends on whether these deaths were truly preventable for the most part."

Looking at data from the Ministry of Health (MOH), he said the majority of deaths have been reported among people above 80 years of age. If they have other serious medical conditions, there is always a risk of death, even if they are fully vaccinated.

Data between May last year and the end of January this year showed that for people in that age group, the unvaccinated are eight times more likely to die should they get infected compared with those who had been vaccinated.

Professor Ooi Eng Eong, an emerging diseases expert from the Duke-NUS Medical School, said: "While every death is tragic, the only solid evidence we have is that vaccination is the only effective means to prevent Covid-19 and reduce the risk of severe disease."

On whether more measures could be eased, Professor Dale Fisher, a senior infectious disease consultant at the National University Hospital (NUH), said: "The current measures are left over from when we needed broad community level interventions to limit transmission."

But Singapore now has "a very immune population" on account of high vaccination rates as well as through infection, he added.

"I see little role for keeping the broad, blunt restrictions. The social and economic price is too high for the interventions, which may not even have health benefits, although certainly, they have been important previously through the pandemic," said Prof Fisher.

With the way Omicron is spreading, limiting the size of gatherings is not slowing transmission or saving lives. Instead, the measures were exacting a toll, he added.

Agreeing, Prof Ooi said: "I do not think any of the physical distancing measures are at all effective in preventing transmission of a virus as infectious as Omicron. However, I can understand the need to take small steps towards normalising daily lives instead of a giant abrupt stride."

Given how transmissible the Omicron variant is, Prof Hsu said: "In an indoor setting, particularly if air-conditioned or in poorly ventilated rooms, the 1m distancing is not helpful except to limit the number of persons who can be in that setting. Transmission can occur within a minute."

His colleague at the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, Associate Professor Alex Cook, said it was clear that the Omicron variant would infect almost everyone in time.

Dr Asok Kurup, an infectious diseases expert in private practice, said some measures should be reviewed to see if they were still effective.

"I certainly don't think that TraceTogether is useful any more, certainly not in low-risk settings," he said.

The experts also said measures involving travel and schools should also be relooked.

They see little need to cap the number of vaccinated travellers coming into the country.

The number of imported cases is "a very small fraction" of local cases, said Prof Hsu.

Prof Fisher said he does not understand the role of vaccinated travel lanes today as travellers are not driving the surge in cases in Singapore. Most countries now just need to see proof of vaccination and, for some, a recent test, he said.

Prof Cook said restricting travel into Singapore made sense when the incidence of Covid-19 here was substantially lower than in countries the travellers were coming from. But now, Singapore itself has more than 10,000 cases daily, so a few hundred more would not make much of a difference, he added.

"Given Singapore's traditional reliance on its openness to travel and trade, continuing to impose restrictions on the numbers is economically damaging but with little public health benefit," said Prof Cook.

He also said priority should be given to removing restrictions on children "since they have been the biggest losers in this pandemic: They got next to no benefits from all the restrictions to their lives, since their risk of severe outcomes is so low in the first place".

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