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Singapore workers face new mandate

Daily testing to follow vaccine refusal by Compiled Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | October 24, 2021 at 4:32 a.m.

Although only 4% of the workforce in Singapore is unvaccinated for covid-19, the government announced Saturday that a vaccine-or-test mandate would take effect in January for practically every worker in the public and private sectors.

Those who refuse vaccinations will have to pay for a daily test and receive a negative result before they return to the workplace.

The announcement by the health ministry comes as the country is experiencing its worst wave of infections yet.

"There is still no sign of cases falling," Health Minister Ong Ye Kung said Wednesday, when the country reported 18 new deaths, its highest number on a single day since the pandemic's start. On Tuesday, Singapore reported a record 3,994 daily cases.

The government has maintained some of the world's strictest curbs against covid transmission. It announced in June that it would be abandoning its zero-covid strategy -- a shift that was possible thanks to the country's high vaccination rate. About 82% of the population was fully vaccinated as of Friday.

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Only those who are fully vaccinated, have recovered from covid in the past 270 days, are pregnant or are medically ineligible for the vaccines will be allowed to work in person without daily tests, the health ministry reported.

About 96% of Singapore's workforce has been fully vaccinated, Trade Minister Gan Kim Yong said at a news conference Saturday. About 113,000 workers remained unvaccinated, he said, and more than 10% were older workers.

"We would like to seek the assistance of employers in encouraging their unvaccinated employees to get vaccinated as soon as possible," he said.

Even though Singapore has one of the best vaccination rates in the world, its number of new coronavirus cases has been higher than ever in recent weeks, with two-thirds of Singapore's intensive care capacity in use.

"At the current situation, we face considerable risk of the health care system being overwhelmed," Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said Wednesday.

Singapore's cautious approach to the pandemic contrasts with that of the United States and Europe, where fewer restrictions are placed on meeting friends, going to parties, playing sports or dining out. Vaccine mandates are becoming more common in those countries, however -- Italy enacted sweeping workplace vaccination rules last week.

Singapore allows only one social gathering of up to two people a day and bars unvaccinated people from dining in or going to coffee shops unless they were tested within the previous 24 hours.

Unvaccinated people in Austria could face new lockdown restrictions if coronavirus case numbers continue to rise, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said Friday night.

Austrian restrictions eyed

The news came after a Friday evening meeting between Schallenberg and state-level leaders to discuss their response to rapidly increasing case numbers.

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"The pandemic is not yet in the rearview mirror," Schallenberg said. "We are about to stumble into a pandemic of the unvaccinated."

Schallenberg announced that if the number of covid patients in intensive-care units reaches 500, or 25% of the country's total ICU capacity, entrance into businesses such as restaurants and hotels will be limited to those who are vaccinated or recovered from the virus.

If the number reaches 600, or one-third of total ICU capacity, the government plans to impose restrictions on unvaccinated people. In this case, they would only be allowed to leave their homes for specific reasons.

Currently, the number of covid patients in ICUs stands at 220.

In the past week, Austria has reported 20,408 new cases of the virus, according to health authorities, bringing the 7-day average to 228.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. A week earlier, that figure was at 152.5 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Although Austria's government has encouraged citizens to get vaccinated, the effort has slowed in recent months. Some 65.4% of the total population has received one dose of the vaccine, and 62.2% are fully vaccinated.

Combining shots urged

France recommended Friday people get shots against covid-19 and the flu in the same visit to vaccination clinics, spurring one of its biggest winter vaccine drives yet.

The campaign is meant to prevent the continuing covid pandemic and the onset of influenza cases from combining to overwhelm the country's medical system, the health ministry said.

While covid measures kept flu cases and hospitalizations low in 2020, health experts have warned that there could be an upsurge this winter, as immunity has declined after months of social distancing and the easing of covid restrictions.

Experts have said there is no danger in getting a flu shot and a covid-19 vaccine at the same time. Those eligible for a covid booster dose in France can receive it in one arm and a flu shot in the other on the same day. France has offered booster shots to people over age 65, pregnant women, people with certain comorbidities and recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

French Health Minister Olivier Veran made a televised appeal Friday urging people to get both vaccines during one appointment.

"Already, 10 million doses are available in pharmacies, prioritized for the most vulnerable people," he said. "This vaccination can be done at the same time as that against covid."

The new effort is expected to bolster the drive for covid vaccines, in addition to encouraging those at risk to get the booster shots. So far, 68% of the people in France are fully vaccinated.

Health officials in other countries have also urged people to get vaccinated against both covid-19 and the flu.

On Friday, the British government started a national advertising campaign on billboards, radio stations, TV channels and social media urging people to get both vaccines.

Britain began offering booster shots against covid last month to people ages 50 and older, health and social care workers and others with medical conditions that put them at higher risk of severe illness.

U.S. city and state health departments have also encouraged people to get vaccinated against both viral diseases at the same time.

Information for this article was contributed by John Yoon of The New York Times and staff of The Associated Press.

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