As Singapore shifts to preparing to live with Covid-19, experts are calling for stepped-up efforts to get older folk vaccinated, to help shield them from the likelihood of being hit by the coronavirus and succumbing to it.
Hundreds of unvaccinated seniors could be infected and face life-threatening illnesses in the next 12 months as Covid-19 restrictions are loosened, warned Associate Professor Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.
Seniors aged 70 and above were the first age group here to be offered Covid-19 vaccination, but currently have the lowest take-up rate of about 70 per cent - lower even than age groups offered the jabs just last month.
Speaking to The Straits Times, Prof Cook said that Singapore already sees hundreds of deaths from the flu every year.
"So having hundreds of deaths from Covid-19 isn't too dissimilar... It's just that we have a much better vaccine for Covid-19 than we have for the flu, so we have more opportunity to prevent those deaths," he said.
He added that Singapore has kept its Covid-19 death rate low for the last 18 months by imposing restrictions on all age groups.
"If we keep many of the measures in place indefinitely, like no more travel without two weeks of quarantine on either end, mask wearing forever... then yes, we can keep the numbers low indefinitely. But for how long? Until 2025? 2030? Obviously that would not be realistic," he said.
Adding that there may be a rise in cases here once measures are relaxed, Prof Cook said that if this happens, very few of those who are vaccinated will face life-threatening illnesses.
"But if 20 per cent of the elderly decide not to be vaccinated, then that is the group in which the deaths will dominate when Covid-19 spreads in the community. That's why I think it's so important to vaccinate as many of the elderly (as possible) in the next month," he said.
Health experts here have consistently said that seniors should get vaccinated as they are more vulnerable to severe complications from Covid-19.
Efforts have been ongoing to encourage seniors to take the jab.
Volunteers and staff from the People's Association (PA) have been going door to door across the island since the start of this year to talk to the elderly about vaccines and address their concerns. They have been aided by doctor-volunteers, who go along at times to help answer health-related questions.
Despite this, vaccination rates among seniors appear to have plateaued in the past month.
Said Associate Professor Lim Poh Lian, director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases' high-level isolation unit: "Making vaccination as accessible as possible is needed to close the last mile gap for this group.
"We may need to think outside the box... to reach them - perhaps a getai performance or a raffle with donated prizes?"
More resources in dialects and vernacular languages, or infographics and messages in simpler language, may help with seniors who are less educated, said Prof Lim.
Last Friday, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said on Facebook that vaccination rates for those aged 70 and above were not high enough.
"Our seniors are highly vulnerable to the severe effects of Covid-19 when they get infected. We must do all we can to avoid high hospitalisation or mortality rates amongst our seniors when we open up," said Mr Wong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling Covid-19.
"So if you have elderly parents, grandparents or relatives who are still not vaccinated, please reach out to them and persuade them to get their jabs soon."