Almost half of migrant workers from dormitories infected with COVID-19

Migrant workers look out of windows in a dormitory, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore May 15, 2020.  REUTERS/Edgar Su
Migrant workers look out of windows in a dormitory, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Singapore on 15 May, 2020. (PHOTO: Reuters)

SINGAPORE — Almost half of migrant workers living in dormitories were infected with the novel coronavirus as of Sunday (13 December), including 98,289 of them who only tested positive via a serology test.

A total of 54,505 other workers have tested positive for the virus via a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, or a swab test, of which a number of them have also tested positive on their serology test.

This adds up to 152,794 workers here who have been infected with the coronavirus, or 47 per cent of 323,000 dorm dwellers, said the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Ministry of Health (MOH) in a joint statement on Monday.

Serological tests are blood tests that detect the presence of antibodies produced in response to the infection in the bloodstream and a positive result indicates a past infection.

PCR tests diagnose current or new infections, and only those who test positive for them are included in Singapore’s case count as per the World Health Organization’s (WHO) criteria. To date, Singapore has recorded 58,341 COVID-19 cases, the majority of whom are migrant workers living in dorms.

Singapore has been conducting serology testing on such workers, unlike most other countries which do so on a sampling basis.

For every COVID-19 infection in the dorms detected through PCR testing, another 1.8 cases were untested and undetected at the time, and were identified subsequently, only through serology testing.

"This is not surprising as many migrant workers did not have any symptoms, and thus would not have sought treatment and received a PCR test in the process," the ministries said.

The ministries added that they are in the process of completing serology tests for some 65,000 migrant workers who had not taken them before.

“This will give us the full picture of the infection prevalence among our migrant workers,” they added.

Among the cases in the dorms, there were 25 who were admitted into the intensive care unit (ICU) and two deaths, including one of those who had been admitted to the ICU.

During a COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce conference on Monday, Second Manpower Minister Dr Tan See Leng announced that the MOM will be starting a pilot scheme in the first quarter of 2021 to allow migrant workers from some dorms to access the community once a month, as part of Phase 3 reopening efforts.

He noted, "(We) have to remain vigilant even as we make progressive steps to ease restrictions for our migrant workers. Aggressive, routine testing using both PCR and antigen rapid testing, as well as isolation strategies will remain a cornerstone in our multi-layered strategy to detect new infections."

Dr Tan stressed that Singapore has just reached “base camp” in its fight against COVID-19, with the crisis “far from over”.

“We still have to scale the mountain peak in terms of ensuring that as we open up safely, we will continue to implement a robust and an inclusive regime of vaccination and regular testing for all of our migrant workers, isolating and treating the affected ones, and doing aggressive contact tracing while keeping the rest of us safe,” he added.

On whether migrant workers would be considered part of the vulnerable population and prioritised for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, Dr Tan said authorities would take a “calibrated approach”.

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