December 13, 2023
SINGAPORE – Doctors are calling on people to get vaccinated and to mask up, to reduce the usual year-end increase in acute respiratory infections, which include Covid-19, influenza and the common cold.
Both Healthway Medical, the largest general practice chain with more than 120 clinics, and Parkway Shenton, with 55 GP clinics, say they have seen a 30 per cent increase in respiratory infections. Raffles Medical, with 43 GP clinics, has also noticed increases in such ailments.
The latest Ministry of Health (MOH) data for the week ending Dec 2 showed an average of 2,970 cases a day seen at Singapore’s 25 polyclinics – against a five-year median of 2,009 daily cases for 2018 to 2022 for this time of the year.
While this is lower than the 3,000 to 3,500 a day in the pre-pandemic years, it comes on the back of almost three years of low infection rates due to precautions taken against Covid-19. In 2020 and 2021, polyclinics were seeing fewer than 1,000 cases a day in early December.
Polyclinics treat about 20 per cent of acute cases in the primary care setting, with the 1,800 GP clinics handling the rest.
For the same week, more than 32,000 people were diagnosed with Covid-19 – 460 were hospitalised and nine needed intensive care. This has added significantly to the bed crunch at public hospitals.
Professor Hsu Li Yang, an infectious diseases expert at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said: “During this holiday season, as upper respiratory tract infections – including Covid-19 cases – rise, it is important to be mindful of others. Wear a mask in crowded places, stay home if you’re unwell, and get the latest flu jab as well as a Covid-19 booster to avoid disrupting your travel plans.”
Dr Jonathan Tan, a family physician at Healthway, said: “We usually see more respiratory infections during the year end. However, this year, we are seeing an even larger increase in the number of upper respiratory tract infections. Fortunately, the majority of cases are mild and can be treated in an outpatient setting.”
He, too, advises staying updated with influenza and Covid-19 vaccinations and to mask up, especially in crowded places, as this can reduce the chances of catching air-borne bugs.
Covid-19 vaccines are free in Singapore, as is the influenza vaccine for those who have signed up for Healthier SG, the national scheme introduced in 2023 to encourage people to stick to one family doctor who can provide preventive care to keep them healthy.
The actual number of people with influenza is relatively low, with the majority suffering from the common cold.
The MOH, which tracks influenza infections to spot possible pandemics, said: “The proportion of patients with influenza-like illness among the polyclinic attendances for acute respiratory infection is 0.5 per cent.”
Out of this small number with influenza-like illness, only 11.5 per cent tested positive for the flu virus over the past four weeks.
Dr Tan said people who feel sick should promptly test for Covid-19 at home. If they test positive, there is the option of taking antiviral medications such as Paxlovid. This will reduce the severity of symptoms.
Dr Edwin Chng, Parkway Shenton’s medical director, gave similar advice, adding that those with risk factors, such as the elderly and those with weak immune systems, should see a doctor for proper assessment.
He said people should practise good hygiene – which most people were doing during the pandemic years – such as handwashing and not touching their face with their hands, as this could spread diseases like the common cold, Covid-19 and the flu.
Dr Chng Shih Kiat, medical director at Raffles Medical, said some patients seen at its clinics needed to be prescribed antivirals, though the majority of patients had relatively mild symptoms.
He advised people to stay healthy with a balanced diet and adequate intake of fruits and vegetables.
“It is also important to get ample rest and stay hydrated. Exercise regularly, but do not overexert with overzealous exercise routines. When travelling, wear a mask, especially in crowded places.”