SINGAPORE, June 16 — Public hospitals here are gearing up for the fifth wave of Covid-19, which is expected to hit Singapore as early as July, by setting aside enough manpower and beds for an influx of patients.

However, there are no plans yet to freeze leave for healthcare workers, as the hospitals said they are prepared to adapt their manpower needs to the situation.

This is corroborated by six public hospital staff members TODAY spoke to, who said that they have not been subjected to new leave protocols in preparation for the expected wave.

Infectious disease experts also said that there is no need to be extremely concerned about the upcoming wave as long as people are vaccinated and practise good hygiene.

On June 2, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said that Singapore should prepare for another wave of Covid-19 cases in July or August, noting that South Africa is riding its fifth Covid-19 wave, driven by the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants.

On May 15, the Ministry of Health said it had detected two local Covid-19 cases with the BA.4 variant, and one local case of the BA.5 variant.

Ong said: “We feel BA.4 and BA.5, this is a wave we can ride through. But don’t be complacent, still be prepared for it.”

Hospitals prepared to set aside additional beds, manpower

Professor Fong Kok Yong, Singhealth’s deputy group chief executive officer of medical and clinical services, said that the hospital group is “well-prepared to increase our capacity to care for Covid-19 patients as necessary... and we will proactively respond as and when the need arises”.

“We take guidance from the Ministry of Health, aligning our strategies and keeping a close watch on the situation so as to anticipate new needs (and) challenges, and respond quickly as we have done before,” said Prof Fong, who is also the co-chair of the SingHealth Disease Outbreak Taskforce.

He said that this includes reconfiguring existing wards to care for Covid-19 patients, and using statistics from historical data to predict and optimise their hospitals’ capacities.

When asked about freezing leave, he said that there have not been any changes to their existing policies.

“When approving their staff’s leave, supervisors take into consideration the need for adequate staffing for business-as-usual healthcare services as well as buffer sufficient manpower reserves to accommodate any surge in Covid-19 cases, while keeping in view a balanced rotation of staff in the department,” he said.

The SingHealth cluster includes Singapore General Hospital, Changi General Hospital, Sengkang General Hospital and KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Associate Professor Thomas Loh, National University Health System (NUHS) group chairman of the medical board, said the NUHS group is “prepared and equipped to handle a potential surge in Covid-19 cases”.

He added that NUHS hospitals — namely the National University Hospital, Ng Teng Fong General Hospital and Alexandra Hospital — are closely monitoring the situation and will adjust their response accordingly.

“We will do our best to optimise resources for both Covid-19 and non-Covid-19 patients and will continue to remain vigilant and maintain sufficient capacity in our inpatient facilities, including our intensive care and isolation facilities.”

NUHS has set aside existing beds that can be converted into isolation beds for Covid-19 cases. It has also set aside additional holding facilities for suspected Covid-19 cases while awaiting their test results, said Assoc Prof Loh.

“We are also offering alternative arrangements where clinically appropriate, including teleconsultation, tele-rehabilitation, tele-monitoring, remote prescribing, and delivery of medication,” he added.

TODAY understands from three hospital staff under NUHS, who declined to be named as they have not been authorised to speak to media, that they have not had their leave frozen.

A nurse from Sengkang General Hospital said: “We’re up to date with our (vaccines) or have been infected previously, so we’ll be all right... but hopefully, this wave won’t be as bad as the previous waves.”

TODAY has also contacted the National Healthcare Group, which oversees Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, for comments.

‘Likely to be less serious’ than previous Covid-19 waves: experts

Vice-dean of research at Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health Alex Cook said that only two groups of people need to be highly concerned about the possible upcoming Covid-19 wave — those in the healthcare system and the vulnerable, such as the elderly and those who have not been vaccinated.

He noted that with Singapore seeing a spike in dengue cases this year, hospitals may see a compounded impact in the rise in hospital admissions.

“The vast majority of those getting Covid-19 during a wave caused by the BA.4 or 5 subvariants will experience it as a bad cold or flu,” said the associate professor.

“(The possible wave) is likely to be less serious than the previous Omicron wave or the Delta wave of last year.

“In particular, in comparison with the Omicron wave, which did not overwhelm the healthcare system, but put pressure on it, we would expect a smaller wave next time because there is more immunity in the population.”

Adding that based on the experiences of other countries that have experienced a BA.5 wave, Assoc Prof Cook said that Singapore would likely not need to tighten any restrictions.

Similarly, Prof Tikki Elka Pangestu, a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, said people need not be worried if they have been vaccinated.

“Evidence from other countries so far indicates that (BA.4 and BA.5 strains) cause only mild disease,” he said.

Both Prof Tikki and Assoc Prof Cook called for those who are vulnerable and in the healthcare system to receive a booster shot, should they meet the Ministry of Health’s criteria. — TODAY