coronavirus

Rising Cases and Deaths Test Singapore's Pivot to Treat Covid as Endemic

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  • A surge in Covid cases — the vast majority of which have no or mild symptoms — prompted Singapore's government to tighten social-distancing measures starting this week.
  • Many of those cases were detected because Singapore is "doing a lot of surveillance for Covid" through testing, said Ashley St. John, associate professor at Duke-NUS Medical School.
  • Paul Tambyah, chairman of the opposition Singapore Democratic party and an infectious diseases specialist, said the government appeared "hesitant" in shifting away from a "zero Covid" strategy.

SINGAPORE — Rising Covid-19 infections and deaths are testing Singapore's long-term strategy of treating the coronavirus as endemic.

Around 82% of the city-state's population has been fully vaccinated, health ministry data showed. But a surge in Covid cases — the vast majority of which have no or mild symptoms — prompted the government to tighten social-distancing measures starting this week.

Many of those cases were detected because Singapore is "doing a lot of surveillance for Covid" through testing, said Ashley St. John, associate professor at Duke-NUS Medical School. But the country may have to change its methods as it seeks to live with the virus, she added.  

"Other things that we're doing such as social distancing, they can be useful for a period of time to help control these surges in the cases," St. John told CNBC's "Street Signs Asia" on Friday.

"But we really need to start shifting how we're thinking about this: From it being a containment and elimination sort of strategy for Covid, toward living with the virus in our community but what types of measures can we put in place to make it less severe for those who are exposed to it," she said.

Health system under strain

Singapore's health ministry said Thursday that more than 28,000 Covid infections were detected in the last 28 days. Of those, 98.1% had no or mild symptoms while 0.1% died, said the ministry.

A total of 1,360 cases are in hospitals as of Thursday noon, the ministry said. Of those, 204 are cases of severe illness requiring oxygen supplementation and 34 are in the intensive care unit.

Cumulatively, the Southeast Asian country has reported more than 96,500 Covid cases and 95 deaths, health ministry data showed.

When announcing the latest tightening of Covid measures, the health ministry said last week that the rapid rise in infections has "put a strain" on the health care system. It added that many infected individuals with mild symptoms sought medical attention at hospitals even though it might not be necessary.  

The Singapore government has started to allow infected people with mild symptoms to recover at home if — among other criteria — they're fully vaccinated. It acknowledged that protocols for home recovery are new and can improve.

Alternative plan

In the last few months, the government has both eased and tightened Covid measures several times as the highly infectious delta variant spreads in the country.

That has made the government appear "hesitant" in shifting away from a "zero Covid" strategy, according to the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. The SDP has no elected member in the parliament.

"The government is in theory moving away ... from the zero-Covid strategy, but the actions are a little bit hesitant," Paul Tambyah, chairman of the SDP and an infectious disease specialist, told CNBC's "Squawk Box Asia" on Friday.

The party has proposed a plan to exit the pandemic, including stopping the testing of asymptomatic vaccinated individuals outside of contact tracing, and doing away with "blanket closures and restrictions."

The plan seeks to ensure that health care resources are concentrated on people who are vulnerable, those with severe illness, and preventing deaths, said Tambyah, who is also president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection.

"Right now one of the concerns is that a lot of asymptomatic individuals are being tested, a lot of blanket closures are being done and these are diverting resources which should actually ideally be focused on the sick," he said.

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