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COVID vaccines

Singapore to expand booster shots after COVID cases hit record

Dining and gathering rules tighten as city juggles risk, goal of 'living with' virus

Singapore is attempting to curb a rapid rise in COVID-19 infections with booster shots and renewed rules.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Singapore will expand its COVID-19 booster shot program early next month, the government announced on Friday, after new infections in the city-state surged to a record high this week.

The authorities will also reimpose some restrictions on eateries and workplaces next week, warning that daily cases could soon exceed 3,000 if the spread continues at the current pace -- double Thursday's all-time high of 1,504.

Beginning Oct. 4, residents aged 50 to 59 will be eligible for a third vaccine dose, with the government saying people in their 50s "have a higher risk of underlying comorbidities and hence a risk of severe illness as compared to younger persons."

In one of the first nationwide booster campaigns in Asia, Singapore last week started administering third doses to people aged 60 or older. The city-state, which officially uses the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna jabs, is offering boosters to people who took their second doses at least six months ago. About 91,500 seniors -- roughly 10% of eligible individuals in that age group -- had received their extra shots as of Thursday.

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, speaking in an online news conference on Friday, said Singapore's booster program was off to a "good start." He noted that more than half of seniors invited to take third jabs had already made appointments.

The announcement of the booster expansion comes as domestic infections increase rapidly, even though more than 80% of the population has been inoculated with two doses. Still, thanks to the widespread vaccinations, 98% of new patients are asymptomatic or show only mild symptoms.

The high vaccination rate is the foundation of the country's "live with COVID" strategy -- treating the virus as an endemic disease like the flu. Even as cases surged in recent weeks, Singapore avoided a significant tightening of restrictions on economic and social activity.

Yet patients in severe condition are gradually increasing, with 23 people in intensive care units as of Thursday, up from 12 a week ago. The Health Ministry says that hospital capacity remains manageable -- it sees about 300 ICU cases as a critical threshold -- but that it is closely monitoring the pace of the increase.

Aiming to curb the spread and ensure serious cases get nowhere near the threshold, the government is now reinstating some rules. From Monday to Oct. 24, dining in restaurants will again be limited to pairs of fully vaccinated customers, down from the current maximum of five inoculated people. Social gatherings will also be limited to two people, versus five now.

For workplaces, telecommuting will be the default once more. Currently, up to 50% of workers are allowed to work at offices.

Acknowledging that the renewed restrictions will put a strain on businesses -- especially retail, food and event services -- the government said it will provide support measures worth 650 million Singapore dollars ($480 million). This includes wage support for affected businesses and taxi drivers.

No new border restrictions are being imposed. Singapore earlier this month launched a "vaccinated travel lane" scheme that allows people who have received two shots to enter the country without quarantine, starting with travelers coming from Germany and Brunei.

Since imported coronavirus cases are very small, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong -- who co-chairs Singapore's coronavirus task force -- told reporters on Friday that pilot programs "have demonstrated that it's possible for vaccinated persons to travel safely."

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