SINGAPORE - Singapore is near, if not already at, the peak of the current wave of Covid-19 infections, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Tuesday (July 5).
He told Parliament that the number of cases is expected to cross 12,000 on Tuesday - about 10 per cent higher than the same time last week.
"There are indications that we are near the peak, if not at the peak, and we should be relieved that the number this week did not double from last week. Otherwise, we'll be at 24,000 or 22,000 this week," said Mr Ong.
He said the current wave will not be as severe as the previous Omicron wave, as many people have gained stronger immunity through booster shots or recovery from infections, which will reduce transmission of the virus.
The key, as before, is to ensure that hospital capacity is not overly stressed, he added in response to questions from MPs.
Mr Ong said the number of Covid-19 hospitalisations here have reached almost 700, though this remains below the figure of around 1,700 cases during the Omicron wave earlier this year.
Responding to Mr Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang), he said the hospitals have cut back about 4 per cent of the load from non-Covid-19 patients - these are mostly elective procedures - compared with a cut of 15 per cent during the earlier wave.
With public hospitals continuing to face high demand, Mr Ong said more Covid-19 Treatment Facilities (CTFs) could be converted to take in non-Covid-19 patients.
One existing CTF at Sengkang Community Hospital has been reconfigured to cater to both sets of patients, he noted.
"Over time, we hope more of our CTFs can be multi-purpose isolation and treatment facilities, for both Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 patients," he said.
Giving an update on Covid-19 healthcare subsidies, he told the House that the Government has spent about $730 million and $220 million subsidising inpatient and outpatient treatments for Covid-19 respectively as at the end of the 2021 financial year.
Mr Ong also said the authorities are stepping up efforts to get as many people as possible to take the vaccine and booster jab.
About 60,000 seniors aged 60 and above have not taken their first booster or third shot, he said.
Encouraging these seniors to do so, he said: "It makes a huge difference as to whether you will fall severely sick if infected."
This 60,000 number is an improvement from the 80,000 seniors who had yet to take their booster shots as at June 20, the day Mr Ong uploaded a video clip on TikTok to urge them to get their jabs.
To ensure that the majority of Covid-19 cases can continue to be managed outside of hospitals, all polyclinics and 103 participating Public Health Preparedness Clinics can, as at June 30, prescribe oral antivirals such as Paxlovid to those who are eligible, he said.
MOH has also made these antivirals more readily available in nursing homes as early treatment to help reduce the risk of severe disease and hospitalisation, while medication given before exposure to Covid-19 to protect those who are, for instance, not able to take the current vaccines, is available in hospital outpatient settings for at-risk populations.
"Our hospitals remain ready to ramp up dedicated ICU (intensive care unit) and isolation bed capacity should there be an increase in the number of Covid-19 patients who require hospitalisation," he said.
He added that the hospitals have started to do so.
"They are already doing so and they are now very busy," he said.
Sufficient beds are also being maintained at the CTFs to manage serious cases that do not need hospital care, he said.
"We have recently consolidated our CTFs, from about 2,000 beds to 1,300 beds but with higher manning ratio, and this will make it easier to transfer patients from acute hospitals to the CTFs without a significant drop in level of care," said Mr Ong.
The CTFs are now about 25 per cent occupied.
MOH data shows that as at July 4, a total of 631 Covid-19 patients are hospitalised, with 14 in the intensive care unit.
About half of the infections in Singapore are now caused by the latest Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5, up from 30 per cent last week, Mr Ong said. Cases driven by these sub-variants have been doubling every week, and they could account for 70 per cent or 80 per cent of total cases next week.
Mr Ong also said in Parliament that they will continue to study the risks and benefits of using a bivalent vaccine - one that targets the original virus as well as Omicron. If these vaccines by Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna are approved and the shipments arrive, they could be available here by the end of the year.
Those who have yet to take their booster should not wait as the current booster works very well, he added.
On the topic of healthcare manpower, Mr Ong hinted that plans are afoot to give foreign nurses better retention benefits, given the global competition for nurses.
The cohort size here is limited while healthcare demand is growing, he said.
“So, therefore, we must be able to accept that over time, we have to recruit more foreign nurses from different sources, be able to take them in, train them and over time... be able to review pay, pay them competitively,” he said.
“And the good ones, over time, should be able to be part of our community, become PRs (permanent residents) and live with their families here.”
Mr Ong added: “I think this is the only way for us to not just weather through this wave but as our population gets older... the size of our healthcare workforce will have to increase and we have to tap both a strong local pipeline as well as foreign recruitment.