SINGAPORE: Changi Airport workers will be segregated based on their COVID-19 exposure risk and only those who have been vaccinated will work in high-risk zones, the airport said on Monday (May 24).
The airport is an active COVID-19 cluster with 108 cases as of Sunday. A worker who assisted a family from South Asia last month could have been the infection source that led to 43 staff members contracting the virus, Changi Airport and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) said last Friday.
Under the new segregation plans, terminals will be divided into three zones. There will be no mingling between those in Zone 1 – the highest risk area – and those in other zones during shifts, said Changi Airport in a press release.
Workers in Zone 1, including those who work at terminal piers, the arrival immigration hall and baggage claim hall, will be protected “in the highest-level PPE”. A total of 4,400 people work in this zone.
READ: Worker who assisted COVID-19-infected family from South Asia could be ‘source’ of 43 cases at Changi Airport
Only vaccinated workers will be deployed in Zone 1. The airport targets to have more than 90 per cent of workers in Zones 2 and 3 vaccinated “in the coming weeks”.
Passengers from very high-risk countries will be escorted to Terminal 2, which has been closed since May 1 last year, for immigration clearance. They will then be taken by bus directly to their quarantine facility.
The airport has implemented “many layers of stringent safety protocols”, taking advice from infectious diseases experts, and these measures have “served us well” in the last 15 months, said Changi Airport Group CEO Lee Seow Hiang.
But something changed with B1617, a variant of the coronavirus first discovered in India. “It penetrated our defences and caused a community outbreak,” Mr Lee told journalists on Monday.
“We now know clearly where the primary source of infection originated from. So together with our airport partners, we’ve been busy rethinking, reinventing our operational processes.”
The new protocols, which will be in place by Jun 13, will enable the airport to ringfence passengers arriving in the high-risk zone. “In so doing, we will safeguard the safety of all our airport workers as well as Singaporeans at large,” Mr Lee said.
READ: Changi Airport terminals and Jewel to remain closed to public; additional COVID-19 testing for 'very high-risk' arrivals
23 INFECTED WORKERS WERE IN ZONE 1
Of the workers who contracted COVID-19, 23 of them were working in Zone 1, with their work locations dispersed across the entire zone, said airport officials in a media briefing. “This suggests that Zone 1 was the primary zone where the infection happened.”
Other zones were “relatively clean”. Investigations found that there were cases from a “very specific cluster” at the extreme left wing of a transit area, now part of Zone 2, where there was mingling of staff between Zone 1 and Zone 2.
“So, we believe that this cluster was a secondary source of infection that came from Zone 1 … because the numbers are much smaller. If this zone was inherently ‘dirty’, we would expect more cases and they would be dispersed in many areas.”
At least 14 of the infected workers from Zone 1 visited the food court at Terminal 3 for meals, according to investigations. They visited the food court during the "critical window" where community spread happened, airport officials said.
The food court is now under Zone 3 of the new segregation system.
“It is now quite clear that although there is a lot of attention on this food court, the food court is not the issue. It is a secondary source of infection.”
Zone 1 workers will have their own dining areas with individual seating, rest areas, reserved toilets and dedicated stations to put on and take off their PPE. They must wear the appropriate PPE at all times, except when having meals or using the toilet.
READ: Community transmission occurred as COVID-19 virus breached safety measures; no country can seal itself off totally: MOH
To give Zone 1 workers “added peace of mind”, the airport plans to carry out “daily rapid non-invasive testing” at the end of the workers’ shifts. This is in addition to a polymerase chain reaction test every seven days and an antigen rapid test every third day.
“These measures will reduce the likelihood of an airport worker infecting close contacts at home.”
There will also be additional training for workers on how to put on and take off PPE, said the airport. There will also be regular reminders from supervisors, with more spot checks carried out.
Changi Airport has also installed portable air purifiers with high-efficiency particulate air filters – similar to those used in hotels – across key areas in the new segregated zones. This includes areas where staff and passengers dwell, and staff rest areas, changing rooms and gate hold rooms.
“I think this suite of support is normally not found anywhere in the world, but I think they deserve it. Because they’re putting themselves at the frontline to help us connect Singapore with the world, notwithstanding the risks,” said Mr Lee.