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VIRUS OUTBREAK

Singapore raises risk alert for novel coronavirus to Orange

There are now cases where the authorities are unable to determine the source of infection, says health minister

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Health Minister Gan Kim Yong (left) and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong at a press conference on the decision to raise the risk alert.

Singapore

SINGAPORE authorities on Friday evening raised their risk assessment of the novel coronavirus from Yellow to Orange, the second highest level.

"There are now cases that we are unable to determine the source of infection. They are not linked to any existing cases, nor linked to a travel history to China, and therefore we suspect there are sources of infection within the community," Gan Kim Yong, Health Minister and co-chair of a multi-ministry task force set up to combat the virus, said at a press conference, as he explained the government's decision to raise the risk alert.

Mr Gan added that the ministry has not been able to establish the source of infection for Case 29, which was revealed the day before, despite two days of investigations.

At the same time, the Ministry of Health (MOH) confirmed three new cases on Friday, with contact tracing still under way. Similar to Case 29, MOH has yet to uncover links to previous cases or travel history to mainland China as of 2pm, Mr Gan said.

They bring Singapore's total cases to 33, two of whom are in critical condition in the intensive care unit, said Kenneth Mak, director of medical services at MOH.

The last time the Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) was raised to Orange was in 2009 during the H1N1 outbreak, as well as during the Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic in 2003. Orange suggests that the government now considers the disease severe, with the potential to spread easily between individuals.

"In fact, we have been preparing for such an eventuality, and that's why we've already strengthened our measures over the last few days," said Lawrence Wong, National Development Minister and co-chair of the multi-ministry task force.

With the alert level now at Orange, the authorities are introducing additional precautionary measures to minimise the risk of further transmission in the community, Mr Wong added.

They include advice to cancel or defer non-essential large-scale events. Those who choose to proceed with such events should take necessary precautions, including temperature screening and a heightened alertness towards unwell individuals or people who have recent travel history to China, Mr Wong said.

Associate Professor Mak said a temperature higher than 38 deg C is considered a fever and such individuals should see a doctor.

Mr Wong said employers should conduct regular temperature-taking at least twice a day, and all workplaces should step up business continuity plans. This can include allowing employees to telecommute or dividing the staff into segregated teams.

Additional measures will be taken for vulnerable groups, he said. For example, preschools and social and eldercare services will limit the number of visitors to their premises.

MOH said it will also implement temperature screening and closer controls of entry points into hospitals while ensuring hospitals put in measures to care for pneumonia patients separately from other patients.

Liew Wei Li, director of schools at the Ministry of Education, said schools will suspend inter-school and external activities till the end of the March school holidays with immediate effect.

As to when the DORSCON may be downgraded back to Yellow or Green, Mr Gan said it would depend on several factors, such as if the authorities are able to contain the cases and determine the sources of infection for known cases.

"As a general good practice, during this period particularly, instead of a handshake, try alternative ways of greeting one another," Mr Gan said.

MOH noted that such measures will only be effective in containing the spread of the virus if individuals also play their part. The ministry urged individuals to practise good personal hygiene, calling it "the most effective method" to prevent transmission.

Despite the raised alert however, the authorities' advisory for mask use remains the same: individuals who are not ill should not use them, while those who are should do so.