SINGAPORE: The number of migrant workers who have COVID-19 is likely to “remain high for some time” while “aggressive” testing is carried out to progressively clear those living in dormitories so that they can safely return to work when the time comes, said Minister for Health Gan Kim Yong on Tuesday (May 12).
Authorities have drawn up plans to allow migrant workers living in dormitories to return to work in a safe way when some economic activities restart, said the minister, who was speaking at a COVID-19 multi-ministry task force press conference.
A total of 20,000 of these workers who have COVID-19 are expected to be ready to be discharged by the end of the month, said Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong, adding that more are expected to recover in June.
To date, 1,735 migrant workers have recovered and been discharged, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said in a separate release on Tuesday.
Singapore has reported 24,671 COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday, of which about 90 per cent are from foreign worker dormitories.
As of Monday, 3,225 patients have fully recovered from the infection and been discharged from hospitals or community care facilities.
“The task force has drawn up a plan to allow migrant workers residing in the dormitories, including both purpose-built dormitories as well as factory-converted dormitories, to be progressively cleared so that they can safely return to work when the time comes,” said Mr Gan.
“Our aim is to make sure that as far as possible, all migrant workers are free of infection before resuming work when the sectors gradually reopen," he said. "This will involve a differentiated approach, and a combination of assessment tests and isolation process.”
Currently, Singapore is testing about 3,000 people living in the dormitories a day, but officials are looking to increase this number “over the coming weeks”, Mr Wong said.
To date, more than 32,000 migrant workers in dormitories have been tested, said MOH in its press release, adding that many of the workers did not have symptoms when they were tested.
Authorities are testing workers using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, but as this method does not pick up the virus when it is in its incubation stage, the worker will be isolated for 14 days and undergo another test, said Mr Wong.
The system is necessary to “ensure that we are thorough and systematic”, clearing the dormitories of COVID-19 infection and verifying the health status of all workers before they resume work, he added.
For dormitories with high infection rates, serological tests will be used to identify individuals who might have already recovered from COVID-19, said Mr Wong.
The number of workers who are reporting sick with acute respiratory illness has been decreasing every day, compared to the peak of the outbreak, added Mr Wong.
Between Apr 20 and Apr 26, about 686 workers from purpose-built dormitories reported sick every day with acute respiratory symptoms. The figure fell to 463 workers last week, said MOH.
The reported number of migrant worker cases has been at an average of about 700 cases a day in the past week because of extensive testing, said MOH.
“That's because we are continuing to test many workers, including the ones who are asymptomatic and well, because this is part of our process to clear the dormitories systematically,” said Mr Wong at the press conference.
Mr Wong said it will take several weeks to test all 300,000-plus foreign workers in dormitories, but the timeline to completely test all of them will depend on screening outcomes.
READ: COVID-19 community cases falling, but Singapore must 'remain vigilant' as circuit breaker measures are eased: Gan Kim Yong
Based on the cases so far, the prevalence rate for this group is slightly above 6 per cent, he said.
“What is the true underlying prevalence rate, we will not know until we complete the tests,” he said. “If it is low, then maybe it can be cleared faster. But if it is high and then you have people who need to be isolated, quarantined, then it will take more steps.”
Adding that it is “very encouraging” to see many workers “recovering well” and ready to be discharged, Mr Wong said: “I think it’s coming together, just as we ease on the restrictions of the circuit breaker and reopen the economy.
"We are now in a good position to plan forward and ease some of the restrictions … allow more workers to resume work beyond Jun 1, and then gradually take steps to reopen the economy."
Even as measures are eased, Singapore will still have to be prepared for new cases to emerge, said Mr Wong.
“As we go about this exercise, all of us have to be prepared that new cases may well emerge. It's inevitable," he said.
"The rapid reproduction rate of the virus may be low today, but once more activities were to resume, there may well be more contact and we may see new cases emerging. It has happened in many other countries as well.”
Watch the full news conference: