'Virulent' mutant virus 'broke through' Changi Airport defences: Ong Ye Kung

SINGAPORE — Despite the best efforts of Changi Airport workers, of whom more than 90 per cent have been vaccinated, a "very virulent" variant of COVID-19 "broke through" the layers of defence at the aviation hub, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (14 May).

Of the first 20-odd infections detected at the airport, most had congregated around one zone, said Ong at a virtual media briefing by the multi-ministry taskforce (MTF) on the coronavirus. The zone comprises a finger pier – an area that receives arrivals from higher risk regions, including South Asia, the conveyor belt and immigration.

"So it’s that whole zone and infections were all around that area. So that zone is our equivalent of Ward 9D, like Tan Tock Seng Hospital," said Ong, who officially relinquishes his transport portfolio to become Health Minister on Saturday. "And from that zone, workers go have their lunch, go have their meals at the Terminal 3 basement 2 commercial areas and the food court. And we suspect from there, it transmitted to members of the public that visited the place."

Ong, who will co-chair the MTF, added, "The big worry now is the onward community transmission coming out of the commercial area in T3 B2. And that is why we are announcing this series of measures today."

Ong spoke as the MTF announced additional measures and restrictions under Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), starting from this Sunday till 13 June. Only takeaway and delivery options will be allowed for all dine-in F&B establishments, including hawker centres and food courts, while the permissible group size for distinct visitors per household and social gatherings will be cut from five to two persons.

A total of 46 cases have been linked to "Case 62873", which is named after an 88-year-old Singaporean man who is employed by Ramky Cleantech Services as a cleaner deployed at Changi Airport Terminal 3. The fully-vaccinated man was confirmed to have COVID-19 on 5 May.

The Changi Airport cluster has at least 17 who have tested preliminarily positive for the Indian variant, or B1617, as of Thursday.

Segregation and testing of workers

Ong noted that the entire concept of operations has been revamped, with the airport divided into higher risk and lower risk zones. Workers in the former will be in cohorts and work in full PPE, and must remain within the zone. Meals will also be catered and consumed within the zone.

Following the detection of the Victoria Junior College student case on 8 May, it was discovered that she was infected after visiting T3 B2 food court. A decision was then made to close down the entire commercial area in T3 B2 for deep cleaning, while authorities began testing some 9,000 workers in Terminal 1, Terminal 3 and Jewel. The latter has also been closed for two weeks.

One said that as of Thursday night, 7,641 workers have been tested, with almost 6,000 results out. Six were positive and were detected in the first two days of testing. A total of 500 workers in Jewel have also been tested and the results were all negative.

However, another group of workers who are close contacts with earlier infection cases have been in quarantine and are being tested. On Thursday, 13 from this group tested positive.

"Of all the workers in Changi Airport, 28 of them infected, majority, in fact, 19 of them, they have been fully vaccinated. And the last I checked, all are well and no one is on oxygen. So we are cautiously hopeful that the airport worker cluster is just a worker cluster, hopefully can be contained through quarantine and testing."

Noting that the entire aviation industry is now serving less than 3 per cent of pre-COVID passenger traffic and working at the "bare bones" to keep Singapore connected to the rest of the world, Ong paid tribute to the men and women of Changi Airport who have been working at the front lines.

"So I hope we continue to give our support to our airport workers as you have done for hospital workers. They need all the support we can give them now to keep things going and to keep our airport surviving."

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