COVID-19: Singapore begins active case-finding in foreign worker dormitories, swab-testing started

Wong Casandra
Senior Reporter
Workers pass a row of pairs of jeans hung to dry at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, which was gazetted to be an isolation facility, on 6 April, 2020. (PHOTO: Reuters)

SINGAPORE — Singapore has started active case-finding within the foreign worker population residing in dormitories, said a senior Ministry of Health (MOH) official on Thursday (9 April).

During a virtual press conference held by the COVID-19 multi-ministry taskforce, MOH Director of Medical Services Kenneth Mak said authorities are conducting swab tests on workers across the dorms in Singapore.

This is in addition to a host of measures aimed at controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus within the foreign worker population here.

It was also announced that Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean will be advising an inter-agency taskforce focusing on foreign worker dorms, an effort announced by the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) on Tuesday. Members of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Singapore Police Force (SPF) are also involved in the taskforce.

National Development Minister and taskforce co-chair Lawrence Wong explained that Singapore is dealing with two separate infections – one where numbers are rising sharply within foreign worker dorms and another where numbers are currently more stable in the general population.

10 foreign worker dorms have been identified as active clusters linked to a total of 460 cases, about a quarter of the overall count here.

Among them are the S11 Dormitory @ Punggol, the largest cluster here to date with 160 cases and the Shaw Lodge Dormitory, a new cluster linked to five cases announced on Thursday.

Four dorms, including S11, have been gazetted as social isolation areas where residents must not leave their rooms for 14 days. Preliminary links have also been established between clusters at Mustafa Centre, the Project Glory construction site, as well as five foreign worker dorms.

The government, therefore, has to actively intervene in this “very major and urgent issue” in a two-part strategy, said Wong.

First, the government will work together with dorm operators to ensure effective management across all dorms, he added.

“That means taking care of the workers’ daily needs and their well-being – all of them now have to stay in the dormitories, so we have to take care of very basic issues like cleanliness, hygiene, food delivery to each one of them,” Wong said, adding that their movements and inter-mingling will be minimised.

Secondly, there will be heightened public health measures in place, including active screening and testing of workers, and the provision of medical posts on-site at the dorms.

Such medical posts will be first deployed at critical sites, but eventually, they will be scaled up to cater to some 200,000 workers spread across all 43 purpose-built dorms here.

Workers who are healthy would be separated from those who are infected or suspected to have the virus and placed at activated sites, such as SAF military camps, the Changi Exhibition Centre, floating hotels, or floatels, that are typically used for offshore accommodation, as well as vacant Housing Board blocks in Tanjong Pagar and Jurong.

The Ministry of Defence announced on its Facebook page after the press conference that it has released parts of Bedok Camp II and Jurong Camp II to house about 1,300 workers temporarily.

Thus far, more than 5,000 healthy workers who are providing essential services have already been moved out of the dorms.

“We have a responsibility for these foreign workers, who have come all the way here at considerable expense to make a living in Singapore, said Wong.

Major overhaul of current operational model

However, introducing such measures mean that the current model of operations for dorms will need to go through major adjustments, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.

For instance, the practice of workers preparing their own meals “must come to a stop”, in order to protect them and to reduce opportunities for interactions, she pointed out.

With workers spending all their time in dorms due to the current situation, the maintenance of the hygiene amenities, as well as the overall cleanliness management will now be “of a completely different order of magnitude”, Teo said.

Lastly, dedicated sick bays must be scaled up to appropriately take care of those who require isolation, while and after going through the period of assessment.

“In the past, it was always the dormitory operators that took care of these things,” said Teo,

“Now, we have to step in and help the dormitory operators, because it is an enormous task to be able to implement these changes in a short time.”

Importantly, Teo stressed, an established, replicated and sustained approach has to be adopted so that such measures can be eventually roll out across all 43 dorms here – and this is where the new inter-agency taskforce will come into play.

FAST teams to speed up process

The new taskforce, operationalised since Monday, has formed the Forward Assurance Support Teams, or FAST teams, to work with individual dorm operators here.

Each team comprises of nine members, including officers from the SAF or the SPF who are supplemented by MOM officers.

“By Tuesday, we had three FAST teams working with dorm operators. By Wednesday, we had put together 43 FAST teams, matching them with dorm operators,” said Teo.

The primary objective of these FAST teams, involving some 400 personnel, is to ensure the wellbeing, health, and safety of foreign workers, said Teo.

These include the timely delivery of quality meals as well as cleaning, removal of garbage and disinfection of the premises up to three times daily.

“We had initial glitches, but working around the clock over the last couple of days, this has mostly been resolved,” added Teo. “In terms of the dormitory operations, food supply, cleanliness, and hygiene, they have improved significantly and have been stabilised.”

The next step would be to replicate what was found to have worked to all dorms that have yet to be gazetted as isolation areas, as well as thin resident populations in them out to ensure that safe distancing measures could be rolled out.

“In other words, the operations will also be brought to the same level and standards as those that are gazetted as isolation areas. You will see a consistency of approach across all the purpose-built dormitories,” she explained.

To highlight the logistical scale of the endeavour, Teo pointed out that more than 300,000 meals are being delivered per day to dorms gazetted as isolation areas.

A proper management structure, including measures to regulate movement, must also be in place at the new facilities that healthy workers are temporarily sheltered in, she added.

This will mean ensuring upcoming sites that are being readied, such as floatels, which has a capacity of about 500 each, and the Changi Exhibition Centre, which can easily accommodate “thousands”, have such thorough precautions put in place before workers can move in, Wong said.

Other issues that workers are concerned with will also be looked at, said Teo. The authorities will work with the employers to ensure that workers are paid and that they will still be able to provide for their families back home through the remittance services.

Teo also pointed out that authorities had already begun taking precautions in the dorms from end-January, with all returning work place holders required to serve leave of absence and subsequently, stay home notices.

This policy started with workers from China and was later extended to all returning workers.

To signal the importance of measures, 90,000 inspection calls were also made on those serving leaves or notices, while 90 individual work passes were also revoked, said Teo.

To date, Singapore has 1,910 cases of the virus, including 460 who have fully recovered and six who have died.

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