Timeline: How Changi Airport became Singapore's largest active cluster

Timeline: How Changi Airport became Singapore's largest active cluster

A view of an empty departure hall at Singapore's Changi Airport
A view of an empty departure hall at Changi Airport in Singapore on Jan 18, 2021. (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

SINGAPORE: In less than three weeks, a growing number of COVID-19 infections linked to Changi Airport has turned it into the country’s largest active cluster, with a total of 100 cases as of Thursday (May 20). 

On May 5, the Ministry of Health (MOH) reported that an 88-year-old cleaner at Changi Airport Terminal 3 tested positive for COVID-19.

The man, who is employed by Ramky Cleantech Services, had developed a runny nose and cough the day before and sought medical treatment. The ministry said he had completed his COVID-19 vaccination on Feb 15.

On Friday, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and Changi Airport Group (CAG) said in a joint statement that "preliminary investigations indicate that the initial transmission could have occurred through an airport worker who was assisting a family from South Asia". 

The family arrived in Singapore on Apr 29 and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 in their on-arrival tests, they added. 

Further investigations by MOH and CAAS are ongoing. 

According to CNA's study of data published on MOH’s website, 43 out of the 100 cases linked to the cluster so far have received one or two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

A comparison between those who have been vaccinated and those who have not, revealed that there were 12 more symptomatic cases in the unvaccinated pool. Common symptoms include fever, cough and runny nose.

Twenty-four patients linked to the cluster preliminarily tested positive for the B1617 variant, which was first detected in India. Half of them were not vaccinated.

Since the cluster emerged in early-May, authorities have implemented a slew of measures, including special testing operations and the closure of airport passenger terminals to the public.

Here is a closer look at how the cluster unfolded:

May 8: THREE MORE WORKERS TEST POSITIVE, TOTAL FOUR CASES

MOH reports that three more workers at Changi Airport have tested positive for COVID-19 - a cleaner from Ramky Cleantech services, an aviation officer and a safety coordinator. Only the cleaner and the aviation officer are fully vaccinated.

In light of the growing number of cases, MOH commences special testing operations for all staff members working at Changi Airport Terminal 1, Terminal 3, and Jewel.

May 9: FOUR MORE WORKERS TEST POSITIVE, TOTAL EIGHT CASES; CLUSTER FORMED

MOH announces the emergence of a new cluster at Changi Airport after four more workers test positive, bringing the total number of infections to eight.

They include two cleaners employed by Ramky Cleantech Services, a Certis Cisco officer and a SATS passenger escort.

Two of the new cases - a 51 year-old cleaner and the Certis Cisco officer - have tested preliminarily positive for the B1617 variant. 

MOH added that Changi Airport Terminal 3 Basement 2 will be closed to the public from May 10.

May 10: ANOTHER CERTIS CISCO OFFICER TESTS POSITIVE; TOTAL 10 CASES

Two more workers at Changi Airport test positive for COVID-19. They include a Raffles Medical employee and a Certis Cisco aviation security officer, both of whom developed symptoms. 

Only the Raffles Medical employee is vaccinated. 

The main cleaning contractor for Changi Airport Terminal 3 is placed on a “safety time-out” for 14 days, while the airport’s main security service provider steps up its safe management measures, says MOH.

All vaccinated frontline airport workers will now be tested every 14 days, instead of every 28 days.

May 11: FAMILY MEMBERS, HOUSEHOLD CONTACTS TEST POSTIVE; TOTAL 18 CASES

The number of cases linked to the cluster climbs to 18, as household contacts and family members of previous cases test positive for the coronavirus. 

Seven new infections, of whom four have tested preliminarily positive for the B1617 variant, are close contacts of previous cases.  

MOH reports that an 18-year-old female student at Victoria Junior College, who had first tested positive on May 7, is now linked to the cluster.

May 12: CLUSTER GROWS TO 26 CASES; JEWEL, TERMINAL 1 AND 3 CLOSED TO PUBLIC 

Authorities close Jewel Changi Airport, Terminal 1 and Terminal 3 to the public for two weeks from May 13, as more COVID-19 cases linked to the airport are detected.

Seven new infections are reported, taking the cluster’s tally to 26. Two Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officers and a National Parks Board landscaper are among the new cases. 

Of the seven infected persons, three tested preliminarily positive for the B1617 variant. 

Special testing operations for airport workers are ongoing and free COVID-19 testing is offered to anyone who had visited Terminal 3 from May 3.

May 13: RECORD DAILY SPIKE OF NEW INFECTIONS IN CLUSTER, TOTAL 46 CASES

Changi Airport cluster sees its largest daily spike in new infections so far, with 19 new cases linked to it. MOH adds a relief school library assistant, who was previously reported on May 11, to the cluster. 

The Changi Airport cluster now has 46 cases.

Of the new cases, eight have tested preliminarily positive for the B1617 variant. 

Eight cases are fully vaccinated. 16 were symptomatic, with the remaining three detected through surveillance or routine testing.

MOH extends free testing to those who visited Terminal 3 from May 1. Previously, it said only those who had visited from May 3 will be offered free testing.

May 14: 13 NEW INFECTIONS LINKED TO CLUSTER, TOTAL 59 CASES

13 new infections are linked to the Changi Airport Cluster, bringing total to 59.

These cases make up more than half of the 24 community cases reported today, sparking concern from authorities.

Speaking at a multi-ministry task force press conference, then-Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung says the first 20-odd infections at the airport are mostly from one zone. 

“This is the zone with a finger pier that receives higher-risk country arrivals, including (from) South Asia, and then the conveyor belt and immigration. So it’s that whole zone, and infections were all around that area,” said the minister.

“That zone is our equivalent of Ward 9D, like Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH)," he said, referring to Singapore's first hospital cluster. 

“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.” 

The country is “cautiously hopeful" that the cluster of infections at the airport can be contained through quarantine and testing, said Mr Ong. 

"The big worry now is ... the onward community transmission coming out of the commercial area in T3 B2. ”


May 15: NEW CASES INCLUDE ASSISTANT COOK AT TERMINAL 3, TOTAL 68 CASES

MOH reports eight new infections linked to Changi Airport, which remains the country’s biggest active cluster.

At the airport, precautionary measures are being ramped up after the cluster was traced to an area that receives travellers from higher-risk regions, including South Asia.

Passengers arriving from high-risk countries or regions are now separated from those coming from lower-risk areas. Their flights are assigned to different piers and they have separate testing and immigration areas.

Airport workers in higher-risk roles are to be tested every seven days, compared to 14 previously, said the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). 

So far, nearly 10,000 workers have been tested for COVID-19. The vast majority are negative, CAAS added.

May 20: TOTAL NUMBER OF INFECTIONS IN CLUSTER REACHES 100 CASES

The tally for the Changi Airport cluster hits 100, after more cases are added.

The cluster is currently the country's largest active cluster, with cases more than double that of the second-largest cluster, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which has 46 cases so far. 

May 21: CHANGI AIRPORT TERMINALS, JEWEL TO REMAIN CLOSED

Changi Airport passenger terminal buildings and Jewel will remain closed to the public until the end of the Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) period, as an “added precaution”, say CAAS and CAG.

The airport remains open for air travel, they added.

The new protocols include requiring passengers arriving from very high-risk countries or regions to undergo on-arrival antigen rapid tests (ARTs), on top of polymerase chain reaction tests. From May 23, airport workers in higher-risk roles will also be required to take an additional ART between their 7-day rostered routine tests.

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Source: CNA/vl(ta)

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