SINGAPORE (AP) – Living during the coronavirus pandemic in Singapore, Joys Tan followed the rules that have helped the city-state reduce its cases: keep his distance from others, wear a mask and get vaccinated.
No one in her family had contracted the virus, and it was with confidence that she dined with her godmother earlier this month, even with rapidly increasing infections, fueled by the delta variant, as the government pushed to forward with a strategy of “living with COVID” as an endemic disease with a gradual relaxation of restrictions.
Two days later, Tan learned that her godmother had tested positive for COVID-19, forcing her to self-quarantine. As she lived in a hotel room away from her husband and 2-year-old son for almost a week, the 35-year-old graphic designer began to wonder, like many Singaporeans, whether living with COVID- 19 meant living with constant anxiety. about possible infections.
â€œI’m worried all the time, super worried all the time, because I don’t know what lasting effects COVID has on the body; and when you have a young child it’s always on your mind, â€she said. “I’m trying to embrace the endemic mindset the government is transitioning into, but it’s very difficult.”
After nearly a year of new daily single- and double-digit cases, infections have skyrocketed over the past month, hitting a new high on Tuesday at 2,236 and laying bare the challenges of such a strategy. But behind the big numbers is evidence the plan is working, focusing more on the severity of infections and hospitalizations than the number of daily cases.
With around 82% of the population over 12 years fully vaccinated, hospitals are not overwhelmed, with 98% of new cases asymptomatic or showing mild symptoms.
Only 0.2% of those infected required intensive care and 0.1% died, of which more than 65% were unvaccinated or were only partially vaccinated. Of the five deaths reported on Tuesday, all were older people with underlying conditions; two were fully vaccinated, one partially and two were unvaccinated.
And the overall numbers, while high for Singapore, remain extremely low.
Singapore reported a total of 85 deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday since the start of the pandemic. Across the narrow Strait of Johor, neighboring Malaysia had nearly three times as many as on Tuesday.
Malaysia has reported 791 COVID-19 deaths per million population since the start of the pandemic; Singapore only 14.
After one of the most successful vaccination deployments in the world and the pandemic well contained thanks to strict regulations and aggressive testing and monitoring, Singapore began in August what it calls a “transitional journey to a nation. resilient to COVID-19 “.
In doing so, the wealthy Southeast Asian nation of 5.5 million people tacitly conceded that reducing the cases to zero was not a possible long-term solution, and instead decided it could start. a gradual return to everyday life, said Tikki Pang, visiting professor of infectious diseases at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore and a former World Health Organization researcher.
â€œIn the longer term, it’s really going to become the norm,â€ he said of the approach. “Because I think most governments in most countries will accept that this virus is not going to go away, it is going to become endemic and we are just going to have to learn to live with it like the flu.”
Authorities have calculated that Singapore’s tests are comprehensive enough to quickly detect new clusters of epidemics, its vaccinations are comprehensive enough to prevent widespread hospitalizations, and its healthcare system robust enough to cope with any increase in patient numbers.
What they hadn’t thought of was the proliferation of the highly transmissible delta variant, and although they quickly quelled outbreaks in a cluster of karaoke lounges and a huge seafood market, it didn’t It was not possible to stop, Pang said.
“They fell hard enough, they delayed the spread of the delta variant a bit, but it was already there,” he said in a telephone interview from Geneva, where he shares his time with Singapore.
A month after the plan began, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung sought to allay the growing concerns of ordinary Singaporeans, saying the wave was expected and should be seen as a “rite of passage” for any country hoping to live with it. disease.
â€œWe are on the path to transitioning to a new normal of life with COVID-19,â€ the minister said.
Leo Yee Sin, executive director of the National Center for Infectious Diseases and head of Singapore’s pandemic response, told The Associated Press that the push has strengthened evidence that the delta variant can escape resistance to COVID-19 and that his office has determined that it is important for those at risk to receive a booster dose.
And although the vaccines have resulted in milder symptoms for the most part, even asymptomatic people carry the same amount of the virus in their airways and can easily spread it, she said.
“That is why safe management measures remain important,” she said. “And if anyone has even mild symptoms, they should see a doctor and get tested immediately.”
The Health Department has predicted daily cases could exceed 3,200 by the end of the week at the current rate of spread, and experts say they could reach more than double before they start to come down.
Last week, the government tightened some lockdowns in response, reducing the size of groups for social gatherings and for dining at restaurants. Officials said the number of people in need of oxygen and intensive care was “within expectations”, but that many patients with mild symptoms were also seeking help in hospitals and the the medical system was becoming more and more strained.
Prime Minister Ho Ching’s wife urged patience in a Facebook post this week, reminding people that the measures were nothing like last year’s “circuit breaker” shutdown.
â€œWith vaccination, COVID is no longer a dangerous infection,â€ Ho wrote. â€œThose of us who are vaccinated can afford to be patient a little longer and have heart for those who still present. to get vaccinated. ”
Based on Tan’s own experience trying to get medical advice on what to do after her godmother, who is recovering at home, tested positive, she said it was obvious the system was getting taxed.
â€œIt took me so long to get into this quarantine facility, even though the government tries to be conscientious in its efforts,â€ she said.
Still, she said, she was “very grateful” that Singapore had systems in place with someone to call to help with such arrangements, even though it took time.
Singapore’s experience could “serve as a warning” for other governments as they attempt to strike a balance between “life and livelihood,” said Ooi Peng Lim Steven, senior consultant at the National Center for Human Rights. Infectious diseases.
â€œA cautious reopening with progressive periods of heightened alert has proven viable as governments attempt to reopen their economies and end crippling lockdowns,â€ the epidemiologist said.
â€œThe key to controlling COVID-19 for any country is to successfully combine vaccinations, sustainable testing and contact tracing with community hygiene measures and a safe distance into an effective system that works. “
___ Increase reported from Bangkok.