More Covid-19 clusters likely as S'pore reopens, but vaccination helps containment: Experts

Hougang Mall on June 13, 2021. It is possible that the rates at which new cases and clusters emerge will not fall further without more extreme social restrictions.
Hougang Mall on June 13, 2021. It is possible that the rates at which new cases and clusters emerge will not fall further without more extreme social restrictions.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - As Singapore continues to open up in the months to come, more clusters like the ones in the Bukit Merah View area could emerge from time to time, accompanied by intensive testing operations to keep the spread contained, said infectious diseases experts.

But this need not be a cause for panic, as higher vaccination rates could mean most of the cases that end up being detected through active surveillance may turn out to be asymptomatic or only mildly symptomatic, said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

"We may then decide to stop tracking case numbers, but instead switch tack to track only hospitalised cases and to assess the burden to hospitals," he said.

Professor Dale Fisher from NUS' Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine said it is possible that the rates at which new cases and clusters emerge will not fall further without more extreme social restrictions. "Of course, this comes with social and economic consequences that no one wants."

But as long as hospitals are not threatened and Singapore can still look after all its patients, the nation should be able to cope with the current level of transmission, Prof Fisher said.

The four clusters in Bukit Merah View and Redhill formed despite tightened measures since May 16, including a ban on dining in that was lifted only on Monday. The number of new cases in the clusters peaked last Thursday and has since flattened.

Prof Teo said this is to be expected, given the measures taken. He added: "It does appear the outbreak is coming under control, albeit slowly, as it is driven by the Delta variant which is much more transmissible and infectious."

Last week, Singapore's director of medical services Kenneth Mak cited the use of common facilities like bathrooms at Bukit Merah View Market and Hawker Centre and long queues at popular stalls as possible reasons for the outbreak.

But Prof Fisher said he did not see anything particular about the market and hawker centre in Bukit Merah that put them at risk, adding that such an outbreak could have happened anywhere.

Similarly, Prof Teo said the outbreak may have happened in Bukit Merah by chance.

He said clusters forming in residential areas simply reflects the fact that people are working from home. "If people were allowed to return to the office for work, I would actually expect to see outbreaks occurring in office buildings."

Prof Teo also noted that the Bukit Merah estate has a high proportion of elderly residents who may be more inclined to linger at food centres or wet markets, and mingle with friends and neighbours.