Coronavirus pandemic

Covid-19 testing for all aged 13 and up with acute respiratory infection

Covid-19 tests to be carried out for such patients who show up at clinics from July 1

A clinic employee attending to people on June 1, 2020. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

From July 1, all patients aged 13 and above who show up at clinics with signs of acute respiratory infection will be tested for Covid-19, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong announced yesterday.

Speaking at a virtual news conference, Mr Gan said this is part of measures to tackle the spread of the coronavirus, as cases are expected to rise with Singapore gradually reopening its economy.

He said: "As more activities resume, the frequency of close contacts will rise (and) we expect the number of cases to go up probably one or two weeks after the initial opening of phase two.

"We must therefore get ready to quickly detect and isolate these cases to prevent large clusters from forming. To do so, we will strategically test more as we ramp up our testing capacity, so that we can pick up cases faster."

An acute respiratory infection refers to any infection within a group of illnesses that affect the sinus, nose, throat or lungs, regardless of whether one has a fever.

A sore throat, cough or runny nose would fall under this category.

Currently, those aged 45 and above who have symptoms of acute respiratory infection are tested for Covid-19 when they first visit the doctor.

But the testing criteria are being expanded to meet the Health Ministry's (MOH) original target of testing everyone who has an acute respiratory infection.

MOH said yesterday that evidence shows that an infected person is most infectious right before and immediately after he starts showing symptoms. Expanding testing allows early detection of infected people so that they can be isolated quickly to curb the spread of the virus.

Children below the age of 13 who are diagnosed with acute respiratory infection will be assessed to see if a test is required, as there may be different clinical considerations for them.

MOH said that it also plans to test target groups, such as front-line staff interacting with travellers as Singapore opens its borders, as well as those living in communal facilities and shelters.

More regional screening centres will be opened in the coming weeks to deal with the expansion of testing.

Mr Gan said Singapore is currently testing about 11,000 to 12,000 people a day, and that tests are being done in a targeted, strategic manner.

There is no plan to mass-test the entire population at one go, and people who are not suspected Covid-19 cases or who do not meet the current testing criteria cannot request to be tested.

Mr Gan said: "Otherwise, we will just end up testing a lot of people unnecessarily because they are not at risk and the possibility of detecting a case will become very, very low.

"It is not effective (to) employ our resources that way. Better for us to be quite focused - these are people who have acute res-piratory infections already, with the symptoms already, so it is very much more likely to detect a case."

He said that Singapore does test those who have prolonged symptoms of acute respiratory infection, but despite carrying out about 800 such tests a day over the past few days, no cases have been detected .

This is likely the result of the low prevalence of the virus in the community, but it does not mean that there are no such cases.

It will take time and more samples to detect a case in this manner, said Mr Gan.

But such testing is useful as, aside from allowing the authorities to detect cases early and quickly, it also helps them to estimate the number of hidden asymptomatic cases.

"So, I think by focusing on ARI (acute respiratory infection) cases, it will already give us sufficient information... Rather than to have random testing of people who walk in, I think it is better for us to focus our targets on our capacity in testing," said Mr Gan.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2020, with the headline Covid-19 testing for all aged 13 and up with acute respiratory infection. Subscribe