SINGAPORE - For the first time, Singapore will be going through a wave of Covid-19 infections without heightened measures.
This means healthcare workers have primarily shouldered the burden, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said on Wednesday (July 6) as he recognised and thanked the efforts of nurses at the Nurses' Merit Award event held at Suntec.
"The only thing that we have implemented is for you to wear your masks indoors...we are still vaccinating but our coverage is already very high," said Mr Ong.
He stressed that this current wave is an important juncture in Singapore's journey towards living with Covid-19.
"In this Omicron wave, by and large the burden falls on our hospitals, nurses and our medical personnel. I hope we all remember who is carrying that burden as the rest of Singapore go about their lives normally," Mr Ong said.
"I believe there are good reasons, looking at the numbers, that the trajectory of the wave has almost peaked or is at its peak. I really hope from here, things will get better," he added.
In his speech, Mr Ong noted the sacrifices nurses have made.
In 2020, as Covid-19 cases surged in the community, nurses were an integral part of the effort to increase isolation and intensive care beds in hospitals, and setting up community care facilities for patients with milder symptoms.
“You are the ones who kept these critical facilities running,” Mr Ong said.
Then when vaccines became available in 2021 and Singapore started its National Vaccination Programme, nurses helped run the vaccination centres, administer vaccines to millions of people, put at ease those who were nervous about the injections, and take care of those who felt unwell afterwards.
Said Mr Ong: “Today, over 93 per cent of our total population is fully vaccinated, and 78 per cent and counting have received their first boosters.
"Singapore has recorded one of the highest vaccine coverage rates in the world. It makes a huge difference in preventing infected individuals from developing severe complications from Covid-19 infections.”
During the Omicron wave this year, it was again nurses who took on the high surge in patient load.
“Our nursing students played a key role too. We were desperate for nursing manpower, and so worked with Nanyang Polytechnic and Ngee Ann Polytechnic to mobilise our nursing students,” said Mr Ong.
“Nurses also bring something else that may not be so easily discernible, much less measured. Yet it is essential and irreplaceable – and that is human compassion,” he added.
“Not everyone can be a shoulder to cry on when a loved one is in distress or lost. Not everyone can bring peace to a patient or loved one in time of anxiety.
“Not everyone can make a patient smile even at his lowest moments, or look into the future with optimism as he regains his strength.
“In a crisis as isolating as Covid-19, the human compassion of nurses is empowering, comforting and invaluable."
Principal enrolled nurse Sreevidya Jayacopalan was among 125 nurses who were presented with the Nurses’ Merit Award by Mr Ong.
It is given to nurses who display noteworthy and exceptional performance, participate in professional development, and contribute to raising the nursing profession.
Winners were given a medal to be worn as part of the nurse’s uniform and $1,000 in cash.
Ms Sreevidya often clocks nine hours of shift work a day, and returns home to her young children sleeping. But in 2020, she did not hesitate to volunteer and join a medical team which worked at a migrant worker facility.
Decked in full personal protective equipment in the sweltering heat, the 37-year-old had to be on stand by to perform swab tests as a wave of infections swept through the dormitories.
By the end of last year, over 175,000 out of 323,000 dormitory residents had caught the virus.
Ms Sreevidya, who works in the Care For Acute Mentally Infirmed Elders ward at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, looks after elderly patients with dementia.
When visitors were not allowed into the hospital, she set up video-conferencing sessions for the families and patients, including those who felt insecure and lonely.
There were times during the pandemic when she felt burnt out due to the shortage of nurses in the ward.
When some foreign nurses returned home and others were infected by Covid-19, the ward often had only two nursing staff to handle about 11 patients.
Ms Sreevidya is thankful for her family’s support.
“My mum, who is my backbone, and my husband, would help pick up the kids from school and also update me on how they are doing so that I can have peace of mind while working,” said the mother of three children, aged eight, 10 and 12.
She added that her 44-year-old husband, who works as a technician, would often change his work schedule to accommodate hers.
Advanced practice nurse Lim Tien Joo, 45, also received the award.
Mr Lim, who works at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), had to manage patients who were not allowed to leave their wards amid the pandemic.
To introduce patients to technology and alternative activities during the pandemic, he used a video-conferencing platform to let patients from different wards interact with each other.
Mr Lim and his colleagues also installed hoops made of recycled materials in the wards so the patients could play basketball.
Mr Lim, who has been with IMH for 22 years, said: “Despite all the challenges, every nurse continues to care for the patients to their best ability.”
Senior staff nurse Joel Quek, 32, had to put on hold his advanced diploma studies in nursing for critical care and return to the frontline when the pandemic hit in 2020.
Working in the intensive care unit at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, Mr Quek looked after Covid-19 patients.
He said: “There were times when my patients looked me in the eye and asked, ‘Am I going to die?’.
“This was a question that was almost impossible for me to answer and it pained me greatly.”
At the height of the pandemic, to avoid putting his friends and family at risk as he was working in the ICU wards and taking care of Covid-19 patients, the 32-year-old limited his interactions with them.
“I drastically decreased my contact with loved ones outside of my household. This imposed a sense of loneliness. But ultimately it was for the greater good,” he said.