Longer waiting times as Singapore's healthcare capacity impacted by recent 'exponential rise' in Covid-19 cases: Janil

About 15 per cent of beds in public hospitals are now used for Covid-19 cases. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - It used to take 12 hours to convey patients above 70 years old who test positive for Covid-19 in a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to hospital. Now, it takes between 48 and 72 hours, from the time they get their results.

Senior Minister of State for Health, Dr Janil Puthucheary, cited this as an example of how the recent "exponential rise" in Covid-19 cases in Singapore has impacted the country's healthcare capacity.

He told Parliament on Monday (Oct 4) that about 15 per cent of beds in public hospitals are now used for Covid-19 cases. These patients account for about 10 per cent of all Covid-19 cases here.

As Singapore Civil Defence Force ambulances are reserved for patients with emergency conditions, the Ministry of Health (MOH) has set up a dedicated fleet of 95 additional ambulances to convey Covid-19 patients to the different healthcare facilities, he added.

Those requiring oxygen supplementation or intensive care unit (ICU) care account for 2 per cent of total cases, and most of them are unvaccinated or elderly, Dr Janil said.

"In the last three months, ICU bed occupancy has increased from 26 per cent to 53 per cent," he added.

Occupancy rate of isolation beds has also risen from 58 per cent to 86 per cent, while the occupancy of community care facility beds has gone from 10 per cent to 35 per cent, Dr Janil said.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung told Parliament that while only a small percentage of infected individuals require hospital or ICU care, many others are also admitted for observation because they are at risk of developing serious illnesses.

When infection number rises, said Mr Ong, "all these translate to a larger number of hospital patients, which put considerable strain on our hospitals and healthcare workers".

In fleshing out how Singapore's healthcare systems is being impacted by the surge in coronavirus cases, Dr Janil also told Parliament how MOH plans to expand hospital and treatment resources to ensure that everyone who requires medical care, whether for Covid-19 or other conditions, will receive it.

Hospitals have been asked to reduce non-essential elective appointments to prioritise resources for Covid-19 patients.

But at the same time, MOH has also been shifting asymptomatic and lower risk coronavirus cases from hospitals to Covid-19 treatment facilities, community care facilities, or getting them to recuperate at home under the home recovery programme.

"This allows acute hospital resources to be focused on managing patients who need urgent or essential care," he said.

The Government is also closely monitoring ICU trends, Dr Janil said.

Seventy-four ICU beds have been added, which brings the total number of ICU beds dedicated to Covid-19 patients with severe conditions to 187. More ICU beds can be made available at short notice, if needed, he said.

The hospital manpower situation is also being closely looked at, given that close to 400 healthcare workers have tested positive for Covid-19, Dr Janil said.

To further preserve the country's healthcare capacity in the face of future waves of infections, Singapore must also adopt more sustainable healthcare protocols based on the medical care required, he said.

The vast majority - over 98 per cent - of infected individuals have mild or no symptoms, and only 0.3 per cent needed ICU care or have died.

"This is a result of having vaccinated most of our population, who will only experience mild illness if they suffer a breakthrough infection," he said.

"We are thus making home recovery the default protocol for infected individuals, unless they have severe symptoms, are elderly, or have underlying comorbidities that make them more susceptible to severe disease outcomes."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.