Singapore's coronavirus response, marked by digital surveillance and quarantines in hospitals, was initially successful. But it's reaching a tipping point.
- Singapore applied the lessons it learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak to its coronavirus response.
- The country built isolation hospitals, developed a clear communication strategy, and used digital surveillance.
- Singapore has seen just over 1,620 cases and six deaths, leading it to be hailed as a success story and a model for how to effectively confront the coronavirus.
- But the country is facing a new wave of spread from presymptomatic carriers - showing how difficult it is to contain the coronavirus once the number of patients hits a critical mass.
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Singapore is about 2,100 miles away from Wuhan, China, the original epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. But the country has seen relatively few cases: roughly 1,620 infections and six deaths.Singapore's quick-moving, proactive, aggressive public-health response has been hailed as a success story. It closed its borders early, began tracking citizens and their contacts, tested frequently, and put anyone who tested positive - regardless of the severity of their symptoms - in quarantine in a hospital.Advertisement
That initially allowed public life - schools, work, shopping - to continue as usual while many other countries instituted lockdowns.
But Singapore's domestic cases have doubled in the last week, showing how hard it is to contain the spread of the virus even with these measures in place. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shuttered non-essential businesses on Tuesday and schools on Wednesday, with the closures expected to last at least four weeks.
The coronavirus outbreak in SingaporeOn January 31, Singapore had reported 13 cases of the coronavirus - all among travelers from Wuhan. It was the third country to report cases. By mid-February, Singapore had 80 patients - the highest number outside of mainland China.
On March 27, Singapore's Ministry of Health issued a ruling that people who don't maintain a distance of 1 meter and who meet in groups of 10 or more face jail time or a fine.
Health authorities began to test all influenza-like and pneumonia cases for the virus. Patients with confirmed cases, even mild ones, were kept isolated in hospitals, rather than home quarantines.Then a team of government employees meticulously traced their contacts.Advertisement
Identifying the sources of cases
Singapore employed a team of 140 contact tracers to work in shifts from 8:30 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day of the week. They interview the country's COVID-19 patients; Dr. Leong Hoe Nam, a Singaporean infectious-disease specialist, told The World that the questioning is fairly straightforward.
"'Think of what has happened in the last five days,'" he said. "'What did you do?' 'Where did you go?' 'Who did you meet?'"Based on the answers, the tracers create a 14-day activity map and try to figure out where the patient contracted the virus. People who came into close contact with a sick person, such as family members, are put into a 14-day home quarantine. They are required to respond to text messages from the government multiple times a day to confirm that they're staying put - they have to click a link that checks the phone's location.Advertisement
Lying to investigators is illegal and can result in jail time or thousands of dollars in fines.
The disease investigators also use surveillance footage from local businesses and digital pay records. They created a digital surveillance app to monitor people's physical interactions. The app uses Bluetooth data to show users if they were close to someone who has tested positive for the virus. If so, the app gives that exposed user the option to notify the government, which then organizes a COVID-19 test.Advertisement
Singapore's government also sends people updates about COVID-19 via WhatsApp twice a day. The messages include the numbers of new and recovered cases, plus specific locations of suspected outbreaks.Some of these practices came from lessons learned during the 2003 SARS outbreak (SARS is also a coronavirus), when 33 people died in Singapore. The government instituted a similar quarantine policy then and used cutting-edge technology of the time - thermal scanners, internet-connected cameras, and electronic bracelets - to track SARS cases, according to the New York Times.It also built up its medical infrastructure: more isolation hospitals and negative-pressure rooms.Advertisement
But Singapore's case total is growing
Singapore's population is similar to that of Colorado, though its size is similar to that of New York City. For comparison's sake, Colorado had more than 5,600 cases and 193 deaths as of Wednesday. New York City had more than 81,000 cases and 4,500 deaths.
But recently, Singapore has reported some of its biggest daily jumps in coronavirus cases - on Wednesday, it reported 142 new cases, its highest new case total yet. Since April 1, its case total has grown by about 700, and the total doubled the week prior, according to Reuters.This second wave of infections shows how difficult containing the virus is.Advertisement
A study of 243 COVID-19 cases in Singapore from January 23 to March 16 identified seven clusters of cases that likely led to the new wave, and found that "presymptomatic transmission is the most likely explanation."Advertisement
Aaron Holmes and Hilary Brueck contributed reporting.
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