Coronavirus Singapore

Number of people with severe Covid-19 infection on the rise

Such cases have quadrupled over last 2 weeks with more unvaccinated people getting infected

The number of Covid-19 patients in intensive care units (ICUs) here or requiring oxygen supplementation has quadrupled over the last two weeks, rising from eight in total on July 16 to 33 yesterday, with experts warning that the number is likely to grow.

Professor Dale Fisher, senior consultant at the National University Hospital's (NUH) Division of Infectious Diseases, said there has been an increase in the number of unvaccinated people contracting the disease, after almost 1,000 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in the last week.

"Over that week, the number of unvaccinated cases in the older age groups has more than doubled, so I feel we can expect the numbers of new severe cases to increase significantly," he said.

But he added that the rise should still be well within the healthcare system's capabilities.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Wednesday that Singapore can open up about 1,000 ICU beds for critically ill Covid-19 patients. But he had also pointed out earlier that it takes only five weeks to overwhelm the hospitals' ICU capacity.

Professor of medicine Paul Tambyah of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine said that with more than half the population here fully vaccinated, he anticipates one or two new severe cases a day if infections remain in the hundreds.

This estimate is based on the number of severe cases reported in other countries such as Britain and the United States, where significant proportions of the population have been fully vaccinated, said Prof Tambyah, who is also a senior consultant at NUH's Division of Infectious Diseases.

Two teams from the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health have been carrying out modelling to predict which way the numbers might go - one led by Dr Hannah Clapham, an assistant professor at the school, and another by Associate Professor Alex Cook, who is vice-dean of research at the school.

Prof Cook noted that vaccine uptake in the older age groups, who are at greatest risk, has risen to about 75 per cent.

Taking into account this statistic, as well as the effectiveness of the vaccines in preventing severe disease, the teams predicted that the risk of someone ending up in the ICU with Covid-19 has fallen from around 2 per cent to about 0.2 per cent.

This varies across age groups, Prof Cook clarified, as those under 40 have a much lower risk.

Prof Fisher, who is also a professor of medicine at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said a key factor in predicting the trend in terms of future severe infections is the rate of infection in unvaccinated people.

Prof Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, added: "If present or new clusters emerge in areas frequented by the elderly or those with underlying medical conditions, then when these people are exposed and infected, that is when we start to see more medical complications arise."

Prof Fisher noted that while hospitals here have good capacity to deal with a surge in cases, they may need to postpone some functions such as elective work and clinics for a short while.

Prof Teo said that Singapore already has the capacity to handle a slight increase in severe cases.

"Our public hospitals monitor the utilisation of these resources very carefully, and we actually take a whole-of-country approach towards managing the usage of these resources," he said.

For example, when the required number of ICU beds was higher in mid-2020, the hospitals communicated with one another to identify available ICU spaces so patients could be sent there.

But he cautioned that if the number of those with severe illness spikes, stricter restrictions, which could include another circuit breaker, might be needed to break chains of transmission and allow hospitals to recover their capacity.

"This is really only a scenario that we will see when the spread enters vulnerable communities such as the unvaccinated elderly or unvaccinated people with underlying medical conditions," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2021, with the headline 'Number of people with severe Covid-19 infection on the rise'. Subscribe