Singapore's first nation-wide flu pandemic exercise ended Saturday after testing the interoperability among various government agencies and the effectiveness of the country's Flu Pandemic Readiness and Response Plan.
Code-named Sparrowhawk II, the two-day exercise involved more than 1,000 personnel from 21 ministries and agencies, over 10,000 medical workers, as well as volunteers and members of the public.
Simulating a flu pandemic caused by the bird flu infection in human, the exercise aimed to strengthen the public health defense and to gear up the national surveillance, response and operational capabilities, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said earlier.
During the exercise, the MOH raised the color-coded flu pandemic alert level from green to orange on the first day and then to the red alert on the second day. Under this warning system, an orange alert means clusters of people have been infected while a red one, the highest level, indicates a full pandemic situation in the state.
Several people were found having a "fever" upon their arrivals at the Changi Airport, the Tuas Land Checkpoint and the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal, where thermal scanners were installed to check passengers' body temperatures.
Immediately isolated at nursing stations, they had their temperatures taken at 15 minute intervals. Those whose high temperatures ran on among other flu symptoms were sent to the Tan Tock Seng Hospital, the designated hospital for treating flu patients in the event of a pandemic.
Meanwhile, other passengers were asked to fill up health declaration forms to facilitate contact tracing.
The scenario seemed familiar to these immigration checkpoints as similar measures had been taken there during the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in the region in 2003.
A major difference between a SARS pandemic and a flu pandemic is that SARS patients are infectious only after they exhibit symptoms like fever while flu patients are infectious before the symptoms are observed, local news reports quoted doctors as saying.
At the Tan Tock Seng Hospital, medical staff wearing full protective clothing, including masks, visors, shower caps, gowns and gloves, screened these suspected flu cases and classified them as either high-risk for admittance or low-risk for discharge.
Each of the cases was handled in about 20 minutes, a goal set by the hospital itself for the purpose of effectively dealing with a large number of patients expected in a real pandemic, local news reports said.
It is estimated that as many as a quarter of Singapore's some 4 million population would be knocked down by a flu pandemic outbreak, about 11,000 people would need to be hospitalized and the death toll could reach 2,000.
Procedures like temperature screening, visitor registration, as well as mask distribution and wearing were also practiced in other participating hospitals, polyclinics and private medical institutions during the exercise.
The drill also helped enhance students' awareness and knowledge about a flu pandemic as over 3,000 students from two schools took and recorded their temperatures in class on Friday and were told to practice good hygiene.
Teachers also identified and isolated students who felt unwell, informed their parents to take them to the hospital, and made reports to relevant government agencies.
Media reports quoted parents and school staff as saying that such exercise was necessary and helpful.
Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said Friday after witnessing the drill at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital that "the exercise is one of those which we will conduct to test the system to find out what else we need to do to improve it."
Recommendations have already come out even before participants in the exercise have a chance to pool their feedback, according to media reports.
Private doctors are seeking for supports in terms of manpower, equipment and medication, saying that their clinics, mostly run by a single doctor with few assistants, could not withstand a surging volume of patients in a real pandemic.
With the help of the exercise, the MOH will also fine-tune its plan for dispensing Tamiflu, an anti-viral drug for treating avian flu. Singapore's stockpile of Tamiflu is expected to reach some 1 million doses by the end of this year.
Though no bird flu infection, either in poultry or in human, has been reported in Singapore so far, the government has always kept an eye out for the threat, which is lingering in an increasing number of countries worldwide including those surrounding the state. More exercises, of large or small scale, will be held in the future.