SINGAPORE: A day after the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) announced that all foreign workers dormitories were cleared of COVID-19 – with the exception of 17 blocks in six purpose-built dormitories set aside for quarantine – another 800 migrant workers had to be isolated.
And it was all due to the discovery of one new COVID-19 case in a previously cleared dormitory on Aug 12.
Since then, there have been more reports of new clusters in dormitories previously cleared of the disease, including Sungei Tengah Lodge - Singapore’s biggest dormitory - Tuas View Dormitory and Homestay Lodge.
The other new clusters are at: Changi Lodge 2, North Coast Lodge, Toh Guan Dormitory, Cochrane Lodge 2, Westlite Toh Guan, Blue Stars Dormitory, Cochrane Lodge 1, Mandai Lodge 1, Tuas South Dormitory, Cassia @ Penjuru, CDPL Tuas Dormitory and Kranji Lodge 1.
NEW ACE GROUP
The task of tackling the outbreak in the dormitories has now fallen on the new Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) Group under MOM.
Led by ACE Group chief Tung Yui Fai, the group will take over fully from the Inter-Agency Taskforce from Oct 1.
Its mandate: To provide assurance to migrant workers living in dormitories. To this end, the ACE Group is putting in place a comprehensive medical support plan, making health services more accessible, enhancing engagement with workers and other stakeholders, and fostering stronger partnerships among Singaporeans, workers’ groups, employers and dormitory operators.
Speaking exclusively to CNA on Sep 3, Mr Tung said his team intends to continue building on the good work done by the taskforce.
READ: New COVID-19 cases at dormitories detected by routine testing is 'part of the plan': Josephine Teo
“After five months, this taskforce has managed to contain the outbreak, and tested more than 300,000 migrant workers … what is more significant that we maybe do not see, is that because of the work of the Inter-Agency Taskforce, we were able to avert a major health crisis that potentially would have overwhelmed our public healthcare system,” he said.
NEW CASES IN CLEARED DORMS
The elephant in the room of course, is that new infections are still emerging from previously cleared dorms. But the former army Brigadier-General is seemingly unfazed.
“When we say we have cleared the dorms, what we meant is that we have tested all the workers, and ensured that they’ve tested negative before we put them in the dorm.
"Reinfection can come from either past, old infections or could be the infections were gotten from a third party, either people coming into contact with the workers and the dorm, or in the worksite. So, I don’t think we can always be sure that even we have cleared dorms, there will be no reinfections,” he said.
ACE Group’s medical director Lam Meng Chon added: “All residents are tested and they are either negative, or they have recovered, or if they're positive cases have been sent out for the appropriate care that they require.
"But that occurs only at a point in time, there is an incubation period for the virus, so when the person gets infected, maybe one or two days before dorm clearance, it could be that the test will turn out negative.”
To minimise the risk of new clusters forming, the ACE Group plans to use a multi-layered approach of prevention through safe distancing measures, protection through early detection and rostered routine testing, and swift isolation of new COVID-19 positive cases.
“The strategy we have designed, allows us to have some confidence of being able to detect and manage,” said Mr Tung.
“Of course going ahead, ACE (Group) would also want to look at using technology, better technology, to better sense, better detect, better contain and isolate,” he added.
ROSTERED ROUTINE TESTING
Mr Tung stressed that the ACE Group cannot do this alone, with migrant workers, dorm operators and employers all having a part to play.
This includes practising safe distancing measures, ensuring safe living conditions and taking part in the rostered routine testing – a process that is instrument to early detection of COVID-19 positive cases and preventing the spread of the coronavirus to the rest of the dormitories.
As part of the safeguards to ensure the safe restart of work, workers staying in dormitories, workers in the construction, marine and process sectors, and personnel who go into the work sites are required to undergo rostered routine testing for COVID-19 every 14 days.
When asked how the ACE Group will help employers comply with the strenuous fortnightly testing requirements, Mr Tung said convenience is key.
“We are helping the employers by auto generating the schedule after the first, once they’ve arranged, the subsequent registration is automatically generated.
"We are also allowing choices for employers, if they decide it’s more convenient for the workers to be tested in the dormitories, we have also set up in-dorm RRT centres, and we are also now going to pilot night testing in dormitories, another avenue to make it more convenient for the employers to come on board,” said Mr Tung.
Dr Lam noted that the continuous rostered routine testing will help to break the chain of COVID-19 transmission.
And in the event that new infections may inevitably occur, he said authorities will continue to conduct contact tracing and isolate cases, both at the dormitories and places of work.
READ: COVID-19 cases detected again in cleared migrant worker dorms, about 7,000 quarantined due to new infections
“Within the worksite, the sector agency will work closely with employers to assess the risk, and even implement a safety timeout if required.
"And within dormitories, that's where we would proceed with aggressive testing, as well as quarantining the whole block as a precaution and assess the risk and rescind quarantine if some of the workers are assessed to be of low or no risk, Dr Lam said.
"So that's the containment strategy that is part of the overall management of re-emergence if we do witness it.,” he added.
KEEPING WORKERS HEALTHY
The ACE Group will meanwhile oversee the setting up of 12 medical centres islandwide, in addition to on-site medical facilities at larger dormitories.
Dr Lam said these will help foreign workers manage their acute and chronic conditions, including mental health, more easily.
The strategy will be complemented by telemedicine and mobile apps that would enable self-monitoring by workers.
This includes health and temperature checks via the FWMOMCare app twice daily, which workers can report their symptoms if they feel unwell.
In addition, the Group is monitoring trends of acute respiratory illnesses and screening wastewater for viral traces of COVID-19 as part of its detection plan.
READ: From manhole to sampling bottle: How wastewater helps indicate presence of COVID-19 in foreign worker dormitories
“I think the key is not whether new cases will arise, but whether we can prevent these cases from being clusters that get larger and larger. And ideally, never going back to the same situation that we had in April, where the dormitories had to be gazetted,” said Professor Hsu Li Yang, vice dean for Global Health & Programme Leader for Infectious Diseases at the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
While guarding against new COVID-19 infections remains a key priority for the ACE Group, it also has been working towards a more sustainable approach to keep workers healthy - both physically and mentally - in the long term.
Mr Tung said he is prepared for the responsibilities and challenges in his new role.
“I think when COVID-19 happened ... during the circuit breaker, it really disrupted the way we lived, the way work. And I was wondering what I can do to be part of this effort to combat COVID-19. Then I got the phone call, and I just said yes, and I’m here now.”