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Speech by Mr Ong Ye Kung, Minister For Health, at the Singapore Health Quality Service Awards 2022, at the Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium, Academia, 8 February 2022, 4.45 PM

Professor Fong Kok Yong, Deputy Group CEO (Medical and Clinical Services), SingHealth

Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen

1.        I am happy to join you this afternoon to appreciate, celebrate and honour our healthcare professionals.

2.         This year’s ceremony is particularly poignant, given the challenging pandemic circumstances that our healthcare workers had to work under.  You had to adhere to tight safety precautions at work, don full Personal Protective Equipment for long hours, attend to patients and their families who were anxious, and persevered through the raging Delta, and now Omicron transmission wave.

3.         Yet, you ensured that Singaporeans continue to have access to our healthcare services. You were steadfast and strong as our last line of defence. You did your utmost in providing quality medical care despite many challenges. I would like to convey my deepest personal appreciation to all our healthcare professionals.

4.         We are now in the midst of an Omicron wave. As expected, it is registering daily cases a few times that of Delta, and the numbers may go up even further. Fortunately, as we have envisaged, it is also a less clinically severe variant as compared to the Delta variant.

5.         At the peak of the Delta wave, when we had about 3,200 daily cases, about 170 ICU beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients. Now, with more than three times the number of daily cases, we have about 20 COVID-19 patients in ICU. While our healthcare workers are stretched, it is a different level of intensity as during the Delta wave.

6.         We will be monitoring the trajectory of the transmission wave closely. As a fellow Health Minister told me, every country will experience and even shape the curve of their transmission wave. Everyone will have a unique experience. It can rise very sharply and come crashing down in a short few weeks, like South Africa and Australia. It can also remain moderately high and stay  slightly longer as in the case of Netherlands and Denmark. We are trying to co-exist with a force of nature, with measures that we have put in place such as restrained social behaviours and vaccinations. No one knows exactly the impact of these measures and what the final trend line will look like, and what is on the other side of Omicron. It is however comforting and encouraging is that among patients infected, the number of cases with severe clinical outcomes remains low despite the sharp surge in cases. This means it is possible to live with Omicron.

7.         A large number of daily infection cases is still a significant threat, and there are still severe cases requiring care. Therefore, we cannot underestimate the impact of a big Omicron wave. There are three aspects that we are paying attention to. 

8.         First, while hospitals may not be stressed in the same way as during the Delta wave, we need to ensure that there are sufficient paediatric beds. This is because the Omicron variant is more likely to infect children than the Delta variant. Of all age groups, children aged 5 to 11 currently have the highest infection rate, at about 67 per 100,000 population.  This is followed by young people aged 12 to 19, at an infection rate of about 55 per 100,000 population. This was quite different, compared to during the Delta wave, which mostly infected older and working adults.   

9.         With more children and young people getting infected, severe cases are inevitable and we need to ensure that there are sufficient beds for them. Our public and private hospitals are standing up more beds for children. Our COVID-19 Treatment Facilities (CTFs) are also converting more beds for children and their caregivers. I just visited Connect@Changi at EXPO yesterday, and there were 660 of such beds being prepared, and hopefully will be commissioned in the next couple of days.

10.         Fortunately, children admission to hospitals and CTFs due to COVID-19 is often precautionary in nature, with short stays of about two to three days. Notwithstanding, it important to get them vaccinated to protect them against the risk of severe illness should they get infected.

11.         This brings me to the second aspect we are paying attention to, which is vaccination and boosters. They continue to make a significant difference to clinical outcomes of the infected individuals.  Today, 0.3% of Omicron patients need oxygen supplementation or ICU care. Amongst those aged 60 and above and infected with the Omicron variant, 1.8% needed oxygen supplementation or ICU care. 

12.         But 1.8% is the average number seniors aged 60 and above. There is a big variance depending on their vaccination status. For those boosted, it is about 1%; for those fully vaccinated – around 4%; and for those not fully vaccinated – around 10%.  Hence, a senior above 60 and not fully vaccinated is more than 10 times likely to fall severely sick when infected with Omicron, compared to someone who is boosted. That is why vaccination and boosters, especially amongst seniors, continue to be our key priority.  Today, over 60% of our total population and 68% of eligible population have been boosted. 

13.         Third, because of larger number of daily cases, we had to increase our front-end public-facing operational capacities, namely our call centres, and also our GPs. We are expanding our call operator team with manpower from outside of Ministry of Health, namely the wider civil service, and also the SAF.  We have also noticed that a fair number of patients who have mild or no symptoms are still seeing GPs. Many of them are just to get some form of documentation to be excused from work or school. Several ministries have recently clarified through a statement that this is not necessary during this pandemic, and employers and schools should accept a positive self-test ART result to excuse an individual, and a negative result to allow them to return. I hope they adhere and cooperate with us.

14.         Ultimately, the most critical success factor in our response to COVID-19 is the trust in our society. Patients’ trust in us is critical and that is built up over a long time when we consistently give our best to serve them. Our colleagues’ trust in us is critical when we go through a pandemic, because everyone goes through it together, and perseveres together. That grows only if you continue, through the years, to work as a cohesive team. The pandemic has reminded us of the importance of this ethos to serve and work together as a team. We function as one body, even as separate parts, undertaking different roles.

15.         The winners today exemplify this ethos. I would like to share three stories of how some of our healthcare heroes have gone the extra mile and had undertaken innovative initiatives, which benefitted three social groups.

16.         I will start with Tanuja Nair, Head of CHAMPS (Child Life, Art and Music Therapy Programmes) from KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital. During the pandemic, Tanuja and her team witnessed how COVID-19 had an impact on young children due to social isolation. So they developed engagement kits, interactive videos and podcasts, to teach children techniques to cope with isolation. Seven out of 10 children shared that the resources helped them tremendously in coping with loneliness during their hospital stay.

17.         Next, we have Ng Beng Wee from Ren Ci Hospital. Together with his team, they created a psychosocial programme – named the “5Cs of Coping This Season”, to support their colleagues, especially foreign healthcare workers who are separated from their families. The programme comprises self-directed activities and also mindfulness exercises. More than 370 healthcare professionals from Ren Ci Hospital benefitted from it, and about 250 tapped on a voluntary staff support network for peer support and encouragement.

18.         Finally, St. Andrew’s Community Hospital partnered Changi General Hospital and St. Andrew’s Nursing Homes to introduce the Violet Programme. The programme allows critically ill patients to receive appropriate care at home.  The specialists’ palliative team would come in during critical episodes.

19.         Mdm Sumiah is one such patient who has benefitted from the programme. She received treatment in the comfort of her home. Her medical condition was closely monitored by a dedicated home palliative care team. This saved time and costs for her caregivers as they do not have to take additional time off work for medical visits. Since its introduction in August 2020, the programme has helped over 300 patients like Mdm Sumiah.

20.         Working in teams and establishing collaborations across institutions has enabled these initiatives to come to fruition. My deepest appreciation to all 9,000 healthcare professionals and partners from 41 participating institutions, for your resourcefulness, innovativeness, resilience. and perseverance.

21.         My heartiest congratulations to all Award Winners this afternoon. As the saying goes, “one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves, but a cord of three is not quickly broken”. The cord of three represents MOH, our healthcare providers as well as our beneficiaries – our patients. With strong partnership and trust amongst us, I am confident we will emerge from this long-drawn pandemic battle, victorious, and bring our healthcare system to even greater heights. Last but not least, I wish everybody a good Chinese New Year and Year of the Tiger ahead. Today is the 8th day of February 2022, so I wish everyone good luck, prosperity and good health.

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