News: Thanking our frontliners at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and the National Centre for Infectious Diseases

By Amanda Lee, Senior Assistant Manager, Media

It was a bright and sunny morning on 8 June, and Professor Joseph Sung, Dean of LKCMedicine, appeared to have much purpose in his stride towards the National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID), located just 200 metres from the School.

Together with LKCMedicine’s Chief Operating Officer Dr Serene Ng, he was due to meet with Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH)’s Chief Executive officer Dr Eugene Soh and TTSH Clinical Board Chairman and Chairman Medical Board Associate Professor Chin Jing Jih at the lobby of NCID.

In Prof Sung’s hands, one of 388 care packs to be delivered to the frontliners at TTSH and NCID. Attached to each pack is a small card bearing the message:

“Thank you for going above and beyond in keeping us safe. Here’s a little box of treats to cheer you up.
加油 (jiāyóu)! You’re truly a star ⭐️

Stay safe, stay well,
From all of us at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.”

After some fist and elbow bumps as an alternative form of greeting, they talked like old friends. Prof Sung presented the care packs from the School as a small gesture of thanks and deep appreciation to our courageous healthcare workers.

Each of them plays a pivotal role in Singapore’s fight against COVID-19.

It was not so long ago that TTSH had to battle a raging new COVID-19 cluster – just when we thought the worst is over.

The fight is far from over

For a couple of months early this year, Singapore saw few to zero locally transmitted COVID-19 cases. However, from late April this year, the Republic began to see a surge in coronavirus infections and the emergence of community clusters.

One of the early clusters was formed at TTSH. It was Singapore’s first COVID-19 hospital cluster and had a total of 48 cases comprising staff, patients, and their close contacts.

The TTSH cluster was linked to Ward 9D, after a nurse who was working there tested positive for COVID-19 on 28 April. About two-thirds of the patients in the ward contracted the coronavirus, while being treated for other conditions.

By end April, four wards in TTSH were placed under lockdown after 13 cases were detected.

At that time, the Ministry of Health (MOH) began carrying out surveillance testing for patients who have recently been discharged from TTSH, as well as people who visited the hospital on or after 18 April. All close contacts of the identified cases, including patients, visitors, and staff who had been in the affected wards, were placed under quarantine.

LKCMedicine puts the health of staff, faculty, and students as its top priority

With the outbreak, LKCMedicine leadership was quick to introduce precautionary measures, putting the LKCMedicine community’s health and wellbeing as its top priority.  The Headquarters (HQ) building and the Clinical Sciences Building (CSB), which are deemed as part of the healthcare campus, were closed.

During the 1 and 2 May weekend, Prof Sung said all staff based at the HQ and CSB must adopt work-from-home and only return to the office on a need-to-basis.

Other measures included suspension of all postings of medical students to all hospitals and having classes at the Novena Campus moved online. There was also deep cleaning and sanitising of common spaces and heavily-utilised areas on campus.

“Your wellbeing and safety are our top priority, and we are monitoring the situation closely,” said Prof Sung in an email.

“In the meantime, please observe the NTU and national regulations for precautionary measures. A gentle reminder for you to wear a mask and observe safe distancing, maintain good hygiene, and monitor your temperature twice daily. If you’re unwell, please see a doctor, and refrain from coming to campus.”

A concerning COVID-19 situation in Singapore

On 30 April, then-Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said Singapore expects to detect more COVID-19 cases linked to the cluster in the coming days and could take more stringent measures if widespread transmission is found.

“These recent cases are another reminder that the virus is alive and circulating,” said Mr Gan, who is still co-chair of the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19.

Then in early May, the hospital stopped admissions for two weeks in early May to minimise the spread of the coronavirus.

With the cluster outbreak at TTSH, hospital staff began facing discrimination from members of the public. A hospital staff reportedly said that drivers with ride-hailing services had repeatedly cancelled her rides after they saw that she was going to TTSH. Another said that people kept their distance if she wears her hospital uniform on the train.

The situation caught the eye of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. In a Facebook post on 7 May, Mr Lee said people are understandably fearful, but it is no less distressing to see.

“For a year plus, all of us have been fighting COVID-19 in one way or another, and because we all worked together our situation has steadily improved. We cannot let setbacks divide us or wear us down, because if we lose our unity, the virus has won,” said Mr Lee.

Several other clusters also started emerging thereon, and Singapore entered Phase 2 Heightened Alert (HA) on 16 May. Under the phase which ended on 13 June, people were not allowed to dine in across Singapore, and group sizes were reduced to two, among other measures.

With the new development, LKCMedicine’s Dean again announced that those who can work from home should do so where feasible and practical. Visitors on campus were also not allowed, for the time being. 

Staying cautious

On 22 May, TTSH reopened Ward 9D, with a suite of enhanced measures to better protect patients and staff. The other affected wards also reopened for admissions.

As there had been no new cases for the past 28 days, the hospital cluster closed on 5 June. As of 8 June, there are 47 active clusters in Singapore. Since the current outbreak started in late April, there have been 658 new COVID-19 cases in the community.

Wounded, but not defeated

At its peak, the situation was harrowing, to say the least, as just weeks before this, Singapore was hailed as a COVID-19 success story due to its swift and sure-footed way of containing the coronavirus spread. The hard lesson is we can’t take being free from COVID for granted, especially with the emergence of new variants.  

Prime Minister Lee has just announced a three-prong approach to tackling the pandemic: testing, contact-tracing, and vaccination.

And as the country exits from Phase 2 HA, Singapore remains hopeful that while the fight may be far from over, the nation stands ready to work together and accepts a new normal.

Meanwhile, LKCMedicine remains steadfast in our support of our nation’s frontliners who are fighting COVID-19!