betty August 1, 2022

SINGAPORE – The current Covid-19 infection wave, which has been driven by the Omicron variant BA.5, is likely to subside further this week, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Monday (Aug 1).

Speaking in Parliament, Mr Ong said that while the nation is still in the middle of the infection wave, infection numbers have been falling over the past 10 days and the week-on-week ratio has dipped below 0.9 over the last week.

The week-on-week infection ratio refers to the ratio of community cases for the past week, over the week before. A ratio of below one shows that the number of new weekly Covid-19 cases is decreasing.

Mr Ong noted that Singapore did not have to tighten social restrictions during the current wave, allowing most people to go about their lives as per normal.

“However, life is not as normal in our hospitals… Our healthcare system is bearing the brunt of the current wave. Healthcare workers have been very busy. Polyclinics and our general practitioner clinics also saw higher patient volumes,” he said.

Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) asked about measures to help the healthcare system cope with the spike in patients, as well as whether there were plans to support the telemedicine sector here so as to reduce the number of patients at clinics.

In response, Mr Ong said that the Government is promoting the use of telemedicine for mild Covid-19 cases, and that this is now more accepted than in the past.

But he added: “Even so, we need to be realistic that in a big infection wave, the healthcare system will come under stress… Waiting times at private clinics, polyclinics (and) hospitals will inevitably go up, and I seek the patience and understanding of residents.”

In such a situation, the key is to ensure that hospitals are not overwhelmed, and that those who need urgent care can be attended to promptly – something that the healthcare system has generally been able to achieve so far, said Mr Ong.

Responding to a question from Mr Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC) on the bed capacity of hospitals that is currently in use and has been set aside for Covid-19 cases, Mr Ong said that based on the worst-case scenario projection for the current wave, the Government has plans to set aside up to about 1,000 beds for such patients.

He added: “This is a dynamic plan and, fortunately, in the course of this infection wave, we did not have to activate all of these beds.”

Mr Ong later clarified that the figure does not include beds in private hospitals, which have a few hundred more beds that can be allocated for Covid-19 patients.

He added that it is quite common for hospitals today to have 90 per cent bed occupancy, not from Covid-19 patients but as a result of those seeking treatment for other conditions.

Mr Ong said that the Government has eased the workload of hospitals by transferring lower-risk patients to Covid-19 treatment facilities, and discharging long-staying patients to community care facilities such as nursing homes. 

“Many of these facilities and services are run by private or social sector providers and we are deeply appreciative of them for doing this work,” he said.

He noted that compared with the last Omicron wave, the transfer processes are now smoother, and patients and their families are also more understanding when hospitals have to make the transfers.

This has allowed more transfers to be made than during the last infection wave earlier this year, and it has made a significant difference, said Mr Ong.

Hospitals have also cut down on their “business-as-usual” workload in order to manage the demand for beds. 

Mr Ong said that during the current wave, hospitals have reduced such workload by about 5 per cent, most of which involve elective surgery.

While he acknowledged that this is “not ideal”, Mr Ong said that this is less than the 15 per cent cut during the previous Omicron wave.

Hospitals also restricted, but did not suspend, visits to patients.

He added that the leave of healthcare workers was not suspended, allowing them to take breaks and fly back to their home countries to see their families – a move that was key in maintaining their morale.

Responding to Mr Yip Hon Weng (Yio Chu Kang), who  asked about hospital-acquired Covid-19 infections, Mr Ong said that absenteeism in hospitals has been about 2 per cent during the current wave, and has not contributed to a bed crunch.

“As far as we can determine, while there had been some transmission within hospitals, overall hospital-acquired Covid-19 infection has been low, and very likely lower than community-acquired infections. And this is because of good infection control measures in hospitals,” he said.