Singapore resident mask coronavirus
A resident (C), wearing a face mask as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, looks at groceries on offer from a mobile supermarket in Singapore on April 24, 2020. Image Credit: AFP

Singapore: Singapore is looking to pivot to a more aggressive coronavirus response strategy that involves mass testing for its population of 5.7 million people as cases in the city-state jumped more than ten-fold this month to cross 12,000.

Singapore registered 897 new coronavirus infections on Friday, taking its total number of cases to 12,075.

The country hopes to be able to “progressively reopen” its economy in about a month’s time, with “much more testings for the entire population and at the same time to take on” additional safe distancing measures, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said Thursday in an interview.

While Chan did not elaborate on the plan, it would mark further toughening in the stance of a country that until now has relied on methodical contact tracing and a more moderate testing policy. Already, Singapore is ramping up testing among its foreign workers, who make up the vast majority of its confirmed cases, though continued local transmission and rising unlinked cases remain a concern.

The trade ministry said it didn’t have further comments beyond Chan’s interview.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this week that the country needs to scale up testing for COVID-19 “substantially” so that it can quickly detect any new cases that pop up. “This we are progressively doing, not only by procuring test kits and equipment from other countries, but also by developing and manufacturing our own test kits,” he said.

Testing rate

Singapore’s early public rhetoric indicated a reluctance to test widely, with a focus on those with symptoms to avoid wasting tests. Kenneth Mak, the health ministry’s director of medical services, said in early March that “community testing for all people, irrespective of whether they have symptoms or not, will generate a lot of activity” but have a low yield.

The city-state has already been testing at a very high rate compared to other countries, according to health experts. The health ministry’s website says it had swabbed about 14,500 unique individuals per million as of April 20, with more than 80,000 unique people tested in total.

The possible move comes as South Korea, which launched a massive testing campaign, managed to slow the growth of infection by early March. Due in part to its actions, the epidemic spiked quickly in the country but also ebbed rapidly. Hong Kong also widened its virus response beyond contact tracing to include community testing as it became apparent the coronavirus was different from 2003’s Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, where those infected fell seriously - and obviously - ill.

Surge in cases among low-wage migrant workers

A pivot in Singapore’s strategy could come as it grapples with a surge in cases among low-wage migrant workers living in cramped dormitories, who have long been essential in the city-state’s service and construction sectors.

It reported a fourth straight day of virus cases going above 1,000 on Thursday, and confirmed cases now number more than 11,000. Almost 900 cases were reported Friday, with Singaporeans or permanent residents making up 13 cases.

While total cases are rising, infections in the local community have in fact dropped since so-called “circuit breaker” measures were installed more than two weeks ago. Those cases fell to an average of 25 per day in the past week, from an average of 34 cases per day in the week before, the health ministry said Thursday.