'Drop everything, scramble': Singapore's contact trackers fight COVID-19

'Drop everything, scramble': Singapore's contact trackers fight COVID-19

A general view of Jurong Safra clubhouse, where the largest cluster of coronavirus cases were confi
A general view of Jurong SAFRA clubhouse, where the largest cluster of coronavirus cases was confirmed. (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

SINGAPORE: After a coronavirus outbreak began to disrupt lives and activity in Singapore late in January, Conceicao Edwin Philip keeps himself ready to rush to hospital at a moment's notice, if summoned.

Philip is not a doctor or nurse, but his work, using a telephone to question patients separated from him by two glass walls, has become crucial in Singapore's fight against the coronavirus, which has since infected at least 187 people. 

Explore: Real-time interactive map of all the confirmed cases reported around the world

As one of a team of contact tracers, Philip, 31, takes action as soon as virus patients are diagnosed, to piece together the jigsaw of their prior movements and contacts.

"We have to drop everything, scramble and figure out where these patients have been," said Philip, an employee of Singapore General Hospital (SGH), who wore spectacles and a bowtie.

He typically tries to jog patients' memories by asking them about their meals, all the way from breakfast to supper.

"Because once they can remember who they sat down with for a meal, that would give a rough estimate of the number of people in their surroundings, and they can usually remember what they did," Philip added.

Philip, who once had to do a patient interview at 10pm, usually has two hours to gather all the information he can about patients' whereabouts, travel history and contacts in the two weeks before they come to hospital.

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He also relies on work calendars, diaries in Microsoft's Excel app and receipts, as well as hospital records, to identify health workers the patients encountered.

He gives the results to a health ministry team that speaks to individuals figuring in interactions, and sometimes tap police and security cameras to find those at risk.

Singapore aims to gather a full picture of patients' movements within 24 hours of confirming infections, helping to identify close contacts and quarantine them. It has quarantined 4,550 people.

Even if it is tough to get ill people to recall small details, it helps to keep cheerful, says Philip, who gained his experience by tracing patient contacts for other diseases, such as measles.

"You have to be very, very patient with them," he added. "Don't get angry, because, just like you and me, most of us can't remember a lot of things."

READ: Social and psychological resilience differentiates Singapore in COVID-19 crisis: PM Lee

World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had previously praised Singapore's efforts in fighting COVID-19, which has infected almost 135,000 people and killed more than 4,900 worldwide.

Initially, Singapore had one of the highest tallies of infections outside China, but other nations have since outpaced it.

"We are very impressed with the efforts they are making to find every case, follow up with contacts and stop transmission ... Singapore is leaving no stone unturned, testing every case of influenza-like illness and pneumonia" said Dr Tedros at a media briefing. 

READ: China couple charged under Infectious Diseases Act for obstructing COVID-19 containment work

Contact tracing is also taken very seriously and giving false information could invite legal action. 

Singapore last month charged a Chinese couple with giving false information about their movements to authorities looking to trace their contacts. 

The man from Wuhan and his wife, also a Chinese national, face penalties of up to six months' jail, a maximum S$10,000 fine, or both, per charge under the Infectious Diseases Act for obstructing the work of health officials containing the spread of COVID-19.

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Source: Reuters/CNA/zl

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