COVID-19: Foreign workers must fully recover before resuming work – Gan Kim Yong

SINGAPORE — Amid aggressive testing of some 3,000 migrant workers each day, Singapore aims to ensure that its entire foreign worker population is as free of COVID-19 infection as possible before they are allowed to resume work, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong on Tuesday (12 May).

Speaking at a virtual media conference held by the multi-ministry COVID-19 taskforce, Gan said that it is an important strategy to help ease circuit breaker measures, part of a multi-prong approach to deal with the outbreak specifically in foreign worker dormitories.

Gan and fellow taskforce co-chair Lawrence Wong also outlined details of the government’s plan to allow workers residing across 43 purpose-built and some 1,200 factory-converted dorms to be progressively cleared of infection over the coming weeks.

This will involve the use of both mass serological tests and mass polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, complemented or combined with isolation. The serological tests, which detect antibodies, will be applied to dorms with high infection rates.

Wong, who is also National Development Minister, explained, “So we have a serology test, we will be able to pick up those that test positive, meaning to say they have had some history of the illness, they probably have recovered. And after a period of isolation, we can assume that they are recovered from the virus.”

Those who test negative, as well as workers in the other dorms, will then be given a PCR test – either individually or in batches, he added. As this test does not pick up the virus when it is in incubation, each worker will require two negative tests in succession before he can be cleared.

“We are committed to testing all the workers to make sure that they are free from infection. Today, we are testing about 3,000 a day in the dormitories, but we are ramping up that number over the coming weeks,” said Wong.

“And because we are doing that, despite the new cases coming down, the daily reported cases will be quite high for some time – this is a process of systematically clearing the dormitories and we may well test an existing worker who is positive but asymptomatic.”

To date, over 32,000 foreign workers living in dorms here have been tested, about 10 per cent of all workers – majority employed in construction, marine, and process sectors – living in such residences. Those who tested positive comprise 22,334 of 24,671 total COVID-19 cases here.

Testing the rest of some 90 per cent untested workers will take “several weeks” to complete, said Wong, adding that the timeline will depend on the outcome of these tests.

Beyond the one-time testing of those living in dorms, authorities will also put in place a regime of tests to test all foreign workers here, regardless of their residence, on a regular basis, he added.

“We do not want to have a recurrence of clusters forming among construction workers, in particular, now that we have identified this as an activity that could potentially result in large clusters forming,” said Wong.

In response to media queries, he noted that the existing prevalence rate of COVID-19 among the workers living in dorms is over six per cent, while Gan stressed that the rates differ from dorm to dorm.

“We don't know what the underlying prevalence rate is today. No one knows,” Wong added. “What is the true underlying prevalence rate, we will not know until we complete the tests.”

Gan also noted that the transmission rate in dorms is much higher compared to the broader community, likening the former to a “large household”.

“We should also bear in mind that the dorms are like households. And you can see that even in the community cases when it comes to household infection, the transmission rate is much higher because they live together, they share their food, and they have spent time together,” he explained.

The average number of daily new COVID-19 cases in the community has dropped drastically from 41 in early-April to just eight per day in the past week. In the dorms, the average of more than 1,000 new cases per day in late-April has dipped to an average of about 700 per day in the past week.

Wong also revealed that by end-May, some 20,000 infected foreign workers will be discharged and returned to their dorms or transferred to other temporary accommodations, with “many more” expected to follow suit in June.

To date, 1,735 such workers have recovered and have been discharged.

Increased capacity for isolation, care needs of foreign workers

In a technical briefing held just before the press conference, Singapore Armed Forces' Brigadier-General Seet Uei Lim announced that there will be 33,000 beds by end-June to cater to the isolation and care needs of these workers, up from some 20,000 currently.

Brigadier-General Seet, who is the commander of the inter-agency taskforce in charge of foreign worker welfare in dorms, said that the extra beds will be placed at yet-to-be-used halls at Singapore EXPO and Changi Exhibit Centre as well as Tanjong Pagar Camp.

For expanded facilities near the general community, the inter-agency taskforce will engage grassroots leaders and residents to allay their concerns, if any, he added.

The capacity for the temporary housing of such workers will also be increased to 40,000 by end-June, added Brigadier-General Seet. Currently, more than 20,000 – including healthy essential workers, workers who have completed their quarantine orders, and some recovered workers – live in decanted sites.

At the same briefing, Ministry of Health (MOH) director of medical services Kenneth Mak also noted that the clusters linked to dorms likely started very close to or just after some time when the cases occurred in a cluster at Mustafa Centre.

Some employees at the mall, which is popular with South Asian workers, had fallen ill and likely infected the workers.

“We believe that that cluster in Mustafa played a very key and integral role in the spread of infection into the dormitory setting,” said Assoc Prof Mak.

But other factors also come into play, including communal living as well as close contact at various construction worksites.

“We've also discovered that many of these workers, even though symptomatic, were very reluctant to come forward and seek medical care right at the onset, and therefore lead perhaps then to further spread occurring within the dormitories before this was really picked up by medical staff,” said Prof Mak.

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