SINGAPORE, July 21  —  Half of Singapore’s population have been fully vaccinated as of Monday (July 19) but there remains about 200,000 seniors above 60 years old who have not received their shots. 

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung provided the update yesterday during a press conference announcing that the government is rolling back infection control measures to Phase 2 (heightened alert), due to the recent surge in Covid-19 cases.  

The national Covid-19 task force previously noted that the vaccination programme was ahead of schedule. It had expected half the population to be fully vaccinated by end-July. 

Yet, the concern about the vaccination rate of seniors remains. 

In the past week, a total of 81 seniors aged 60 and above were infected, including 12 who were not vaccinated.

Ong said that overall, about 70 per cent of seniors aged 70 and above were vaccinated while more than 85 per cent of those between 60 and 69 years old had received their two vaccine doses. 

He added that the authorities “need more work” to push up the vaccination rate of those above 70 years old and was looking at the figure reaching at least 75 per cent in the coming days. 

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“So we know we will have 75 per cent in the bag. In the coming weeks, if we can reach out to even more, maybe we can reach 80 to 85 per cent.”  

Ong, who co-chairs the task force, reiterated that seniors “have a high likelihood of falling critically ill once infected”. 

The government has been urging seniors to get their vaccine shots for quite some time.

In a press release issued yesterday, the Ministry of Health said again that it is deploying mobile vaccination teams to public housing estates where there are more non-vaccinated seniors. These elders may also just walk into any vaccination centre for their first appointment.

The task force has also asked general practitioners and primary care providers to reach out to their older patients who are not vaccinated and persuade them to get their jabs. 

Ong emphasised again that the vaccination rate is among the key considerations behind the rolling back of community restrictions. Another factor is the hospital capacity in Singapore that “must be protected”. 

“Once that is under pressure or overwhelmed, it will be a disaster, and many people and patients will be affected.”

Unlike the KTV cluster that saw the virus spread among younger individuals and a “certain network of people”, Ong said, the cluster of cases at wet markets and food centres affect a “much wider spectrum” of the population, including the seniors. 

“The porous nature of our food centres and our hawker centres also increases the risk of cryptic and silent transmission that is hard to detect.” 

He acknowledged that rolling back the Phase 3 (heightened alert) measures to those under Phase 2 would be “most unsettling for the affected industries and the establishments”.

“But we know we are so close, weeks away to a stage where we have two-thirds or more of our population fully vaccinated around National Day (August 9), and then being able to much more decisively transit to a Covid-resilient posture,” he said.

“Now is really not the time to risk it all. So we need to bite this bullet.”

During the press conference, the task force was also asked about the possibility of school closures. 

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who is also a co-chair of the task force, said that the government will continue to monitor the situation carefully. 

Pointing out that there have not been any school-based transmissions during this recent surge in cases, he said that the authorities’ overall assessment was that the reversion to stricter measures was “appropriate to buy us time to push through the vaccination programme”.

At the schools, “very stringent protocols and safe management measures” are in place to minimise interactions in the classrooms and ensure that there is no transmission within the school system, Wong said. 

“That’s why, for the most part of this pandemic, we have been able to keep schools open, ensure that learning continues safely, not just for our students but also for all our educators.”

Adding that this was “something we should not take for granted”, Wong noted that around the world, many places had to close their schools for extended periods and studies have shown that such closures have an impact on learning. 

Such an impact may remain with the students for some time to the extent that there may be “permanent scarring” in terms of human capital, which Singapore has tried very hard to avoid, Wong said. — TODAY