Coronavirus: Singapore watches ICU capacity amid rise in cases; Philippine schools set to reopen

© REUTERS A largely empty Merlion Park is seen in Singapore late last month. Photo: Reuters

Singapore’s leaders are closely watching the city state’s intensive care capacity to make sure its hospital system will not be overwhelmed, as reported Covid-19 cases breached the 1,000 mark for a second consecutive day, cabinet ministers said.

The next one to two weeks “will be critical,” Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said in a Facebook post late on Sunday. Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said in a separate post that while ICU capacity is “still holding up,” accident and emergency departments and general wards in hospitals are coming “under pressure”. Both sit on Singapore’s Covid-19 task force.

Singapore’s plan to shift away from a Covid-19 elimination strategy, towards living with the disease as endemic, relies on limiting serious cases through mass vaccination. The current increase could test that strategy. The number of serious cases in ICU or in need of oxygen supplementation more than doubled to 139 as of Sunday, from 61 a week ago.

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© Provided by South China Morning Post People sit and wait after receiving a dose of Covid-19 vaccine at a hospital in Singapore this month. Photo: AFP

“There is no doubt that if our people had not come forward in big numbers to vaccinate ourselves, our health care system would have been overwhelmed by now,” Ong said.

Singapore’s public acute hospitals had more than 9,600 beds for inpatient care as of 2020. Among hospitals tracked by the health ministry, the beds occupancy rate ranged between 76 per cent and 88 per cent as of September 11.

In Singapore, ‘living with Covid-19’ feels like walking a tightrope of uncertainty, residents say

Singapore’s vaccination rate of 82 per cent is among the highest in the world. About 0.2 per cent of its infected cases are at risk of needing ICU care, Wong said, citing data from the Ministry of Health. While that is far lower than many Western nations that have opened up faster than Singapore, government leaders say they need to ensure ICU cases do not spike alongside rising overall cases.

“Some have told me that based on our high vaccine coverage, and the current ICU figure … we don’t have to worry,” Wong said. “But in fact the ICU numbers can change very quickly and we cannot afford to be complacent.”

Ong said in July that Singapore can open up to about 1,000 ICU beds if needed for critically ill Covid-19 patients.

The city state has 873 patients currently warded in hospitals, 118 of which are serious illness requiring oxygen supplementation, and 21 are in the ICU, according to a statement from the ministry. At its peak, early in the pandemic, Singapore had as many as 32 ICU Covid patients.

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Of the 1,009 new cases of locally transmitted infections on September 19, 321 were aged above 60 years old. Those aged 18 or below made up 88 cases.

Singapore has urged younger vaccinated people to recover at home. More community care facilities will be set up to provide clinical care to patients with mild symptoms or who have underlying conditions that require a closer monitoring, the health ministry said in a separate statement.

“Our hospitals and health care workers cannot be over burdened,” Ong said, adding that it’s currently the Health Ministry’s “biggest challenge and we are doing our best to solve this”.

Schools reopening in the Philippines

The Philippines will reopen up to 120 schools for limited in-person classes for the first time since the start of the pandemic in a pilot approved by President Rodrigo Duterte, officials said on Monday.

While nearly every country in the world has already partially or fully reopened schools for face-to-face lessons, the Philippines has kept them closed since March 2020.

“We have to pilot face-to-face (classes) because this is not just an issue for education, it’s an issue for the children’s mental health,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters. “It’s also an issue for the economy because we might lose a generation if we don’t have face-to-face (classes).”

Under guidelines approved by Duterte Monday, up to a hundred public schools in areas considered “minimal risk” for virus transmission will be allowed to take part in the two-month trial. Twenty private schools can also participate.

Classrooms will be open to children in kindergarten to grade three, and senior high school, but the number of students and hours spent in face-to-face lessons limited.

Schools wanting to take part will be assessed for their preparedness and need approval from local governments to reopen. Written consent from parents will be required.

“If the pilot class is safe, if it is effective, then we will gradually increase it,” said Education Secretary Leonor Briones.

Duterte rejected previous proposals for a pilot reopening of schools for fear children could catch Covid-19 and infect elderly relatives.

In the Philippines, students suffer as Covid-19 school shutdowns drag on

But there have been growing calls from the UN’s children fund and many teachers for a return to in-person learning amid concerns the prolonged closure was exacerbating an education crisis in the country. It is not clear when the pilot will begin or which schools will be included.

A “blended learning” programme, which involves online classes, printed materials and lessons broadcast on television and social media, will continue.

France Castro of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers said the decision was “long overdue”. 15-year-olds in the Philippines were at or near the bottom in reading, mathematics and science, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Most students attend public schools where large class sizes, outdated teaching methods, lack of investment in basic infrastructure such as toilets, and poverty have been blamed for youngsters lagging behind.

© Provided by South China Morning Post An Institut Pasteur du Cambodge researcher takes an oral swab from a bat captured in Cambodia’s Steung Treng Province. Photo: Reuters

Virus researchers hunt for bat samples in Cambodia

Researchers are collecting samples from bats in northern Cambodia in a bid to understand the coronavirus pandemic, returning to a region where a very similar virus was found in the animals a decade ago.

Two samples from horseshoe bats were collected in 2010 in Stung Treng province near Laos and kept in freezers at the Institut Pasteur du Cambodge (IPC) in Phnom Penh.

Tests done on them last year revealed a close relative to the coronavirus that has killed more than 4.6 million people worldwide.

An eight-member IPC research team has been collecting samples from bats and logging their species, sex, age and other details for a week. Similar research is going on in the Philippines.

“We hope that the result from this study can help the world to have a better understanding about Covid-19,” said field coordinator Thavry Hoem, as she held a net to catch bats.

Host species such as bats typically display no symptoms of pathogens, but these can be devastating if transmitted to humans or other animals.

Dr Veasna Duong, head of virology at the IPC, said his institute had made four such trips in the past two years, hoping for clues about the origin and evolution of the bat-borne virus.

“We want to find out whether the virus is still there and … to know how the virus has evolved,” he said.

Deadly viruses originating from bats include Ebola and other coronaviruses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome.

But humans were responsible for the devastation caused by Covid-19, he said, because of interference and destruction of natural habitats.

“If we try to be near wildlife, the chances of getting the virus carried by wildlife are more than normal. The chances of the virus transforming to infect humans are also more,” he said.

The French-funded project also aims to look at how the wildlife trade could be playing a part, said Julia Guillebaud, a research engineer at the IPC’s virology unit.

“(The project) aims to provide new knowledge on wild meat trade chains in Cambodia, document the diversity of betacoronaviruses circulating through these chains, and develop a flexible and integrated early-detection system of viral spillover events,” Gillebaud said.

Indonesia logs fewest daily cases in over a year

Indonesia on Monday reported 1,932 new daily coronavirus cases, the lowest since August 2020, data from country’s virus task force showed.

Indonesia has reported nearly 4.2 million infections overall and over 140,000 deaths, but new cases have dropped 98 per cent from their peak in July, senior cabinet minister Luhut Pandjaitan said.

Its average positivity rate – the percentage of tests that are positive – was just below 4 per cent this month, under the WHO’s 5 per cent threshold for determining whether an outbreak is under control.

Luhut warned, however, that were still risks of new infection waves and said quarantine protocols would be strengthened at entry points.

“One of the risks is from abroad since the number of cases Covid-19 cases in our neighbouring countries are still high,” Luhut told a virtual media briefing. “We don’t want to lower our guards against the new variants.”

Measures that were relaxed on Monday include allowing cinemas to reopen at 50 per cent capacity and children under 12 to visit malls in Java’s major cities.

Luhut said last week the government may allow foreign tourists to visit Bali from October as number of cases dropped.

New South Wales’ caseload at lowest level in weeks

Australia’s New South Wales state on Monday reported its lowest rise in daily Covid-19 cases in more than three weeks as some lockdown restrictions were eased in Sydney, the state capital, amid higher vaccination levels.

State Premier Gladys Berejiklian said 935 new cases had been detected in New South Wales, the lowest daily tally since August 27, and down from 1,083 on Sunday. The state reported four more deaths.

“We’re feeling more positive than we have in a couple of weeks … but I don’t want any of us to sit back and think the worst is behind us,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney, warning of more deaths in the days ahead.

“Because we have seen the accumulation of so many cases, we know that October is going to be very challenging for our hospital system.”

© Provided by South China Morning Post People workout in a park in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Time limits on outdoor exercise in the city have been lifted. Photo: AP

Nearly half of Australia’s 25 million people are in lockdown after the Delta variant spread rapidly in Sydney and Melbourne, the country’s largest cities, forcing officials there to abandon a coronavirus elimination target and shift to rapid vaccinations to ease curbs.

As the vaccine roll-out gathers speed, with 53 per cent of the state’s adult population fully vaccinated, some restrictions on gatherings were relaxed on Monday in 12 of the worst-hit suburbs in Sydney’s west. Time limits for outdoor exercise were lifted, while the fully vaccinated people can gather outside in groups of five.

Neighbouring Victoria state, which includes Melbourne, logged one new death and 567 new infections, its biggest daily rise this year, a day after revealing its road map back to freedom when vaccinations reach 70 per cent, expected around October 26.

How does ‘zero-Covid’ end? Questions mount over eradication exit strategy

So far, 44 per cent of people in the state have been fully vaccinated, below the national average of 47 per cent.

Australia has largely lived with a coronavirus elimination strategy for much of the pandemic, recording 1,167 deaths and some 87,000 cases. About 56,000 cases have been registered since mid-June when the first Delta infection was detected in Sydney.

While New South Wales and Victoria have borne the brunt of the Delta outbreak, most other states with little or no community transmission fear opening up too soon could overwhelm their hospital systems.

Thailand to try alternative vaccination method to stretch supplies

Doctors in Thailand have been given the go-ahead to start giving Covid-19 booster shots under the skin, rather than injecting them into muscles, officials said on Monday, in an effort to strengthen immunity and stretch vaccine supplies.

Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul said the method, which doctors began exploring last month, could be used at the discretion of medical professionals, providing it was supported by evidence.

Chalermpong Sukonthaphon, director of the Vachira Hospital in Phuket, said his hospital had been given the green light to use the technique from Friday, as trials had showed it triggered a similar immune response to the regular method.

“One vaccine dose can be used for five intradermal injections,” Chalermpong said.

Phuket’s population was among the first to be inoculated in Thailand, as a pre-requisite for the island to reopen to vaccinated foreign tourists in July.

Starting in April they received two doses of the vaccine of Sinovac, for which booster shots of other vaccines have been issued in several countries after concerns about its resistance to the Delta Covid-19 variant.

Thailand has turned to unconventional approaches due to problems in supplies, despite manufacturing the AstraZeneca vaccine locally.

So far, only 21 per cent of the estimated 72 million people living in the country have been fully vaccinated.

Authorities have also decided to administer separate shots of Sinovac’s vaccine followed by that of AstraZeneca, a technique yet to be adopted elsewhere.

Thailand has reported more than 1.4 million infections and 15,000 deaths, the majority since April this year.

New Zealand eases Auckland lockdown

New Zealand‘s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern partially eased a lockdown in Auckland, but urged people in the nation’s largest city to stay at home and avoid social contact as the government struggles to stamp out an outbreak of the Delta coronavirus variant.

Auckland will move to Alert Level 3 at midnight on Tuesday, allowing some businesses to reopen, Ardern said on Monday in Wellington. But the city will remain at that level for at least two weeks and the rest of the country will stay at Level 2, requiring social distancing and mask wearing in indoor public spaces.

“We are not stepping out of Level 4 because the job is done, but nor are we moving because we don’t think we can achieve the goal of stamping out Covid-19,” Ardern said. “We are moving because Level 3 still provides a cautious approach where we continue to stamp out Covid-19.”

© Provided by South China Morning Post Motorists queue at a Covid-19 testing station in Auckland. Photo: AFP

Auckland has already been in lockdown for more than a month. While the restrictions have managed to contain the outbreak, new cases continue to be detected every day. Three new infections just outside the Auckland border – one a child who attended school while infectious – prompted the government to today impose a snap lockdown in that area for five days.

For Auckland, Level 3 does not mean lockdown is lifted. It allows businesses to resume contactless operations but people are still asked to stay at home and work remotely if possible. Schools, day care centres, shops and public venues are largely closed, and gatherings are restricted.

In a boost for the hospitality sector, Ardern said the gathering limit for the rest of the country under Level 2 has been raised to 100 from 50.

Reporting by Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse, Reuters

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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