SINGAPORE: Pre-emptive COVID-19 tests are being conducted in dormitories and worksites following a new cluster of infections at Westlite Woodlands Dormitory.
More than 5,500 workers were tested between Apr 23 and Apr 26, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) said on Wednesday (Apr 28).
The tests are in addition to the routine tests conducted on dormitory residents every two weeks, and include workers who have recovered from COVID-19 and those who have never been infected.
The move comes after 24 workers at Westlite dormitory who had recovered from COVID-19 tested positive for the disease again.
Eleven of the cases were assessed to be shedding virus fragments of old infections and five were likely cases of re-infection, said MOM. Two cases were determined to be negative after re-testing and the remaining six are pending assessment.
READ: Sole dormitory COVID-19 case unlinked to other cases at Westlite Woodlands dorm; worker ‘likely’ caught virus overseas
The Ministry of Health announced last week that recovered workers who have passed 270 days from their date of infection will also be subject to rostered routine testing, due to the risk of waning immunity and threat of new coronavirus variants.
TESTING OF RECOVERED WORKERS
When recovered workers are tested, the ministry said it expects a proportion of them to return a positive result on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.
However, this does not necessarily indicate re-infection among recovered workers.
"There could be two situations. One is that this person is a prolonged shedder, who is non-infectious and shedding dead viral fragments (which get picked up by) the PCR test," said Dr Lam Meng Chon, the director of the medical team at the ministry's Assurance, Care and Engagement (ACE) unit.
In these cases, authorities would "not be too worried", he added.
But the other situation is that the person may have been re-infected with a different strain, which could be transmissible to others.
Dr Lam added: "Because we are testing recovered workers, we have entered a new phase where a certain time is required for clinical assessments to determine if (patients are prolonged shedders or reinfected)."
These assessments typically require several days. "So there's no need to panic, but to be patient and allow the clinical assessment to take place," said Dr Lam.
Movement restrictions or quarantines may also be imposed on a dormitory if a few workers there test positive for COVID-19, MOM said.
This is a public health measure borne "out of an abundance of caution", to ensure that any cases and their close contacts can be quickly isolated, said Dr Lam.
The ministry added that this precaution is necessary only for the duration of the assessment and will be lifted when tests have concluded.
“If quarantines are imposed in some dormitories, this does not necessarily mean that there are confirmed clusters there,” it said. “Most of the time, it is because cases are being assessed to determine if they are old or current infections.”
DORMITORIES STEP UP SAFETY MEASURES, SUPPORT FOR WORKERS
Precautionary steps have been taken in the dormitories to protect workers who are well and to stem the risk of transmission, MOM said.
READ: Measures put in place at Westlite Woodlands dormitory after 17 recovered workers test positive for COVID-19 again
Workers can still access communal facilities and recreation centres in dormitories, with regulations in place to prevent residents from mingling. However, movement between dormitory blocks is not allowed and safe management measures have been stepped up.
“Workers have also been advised to cease social interactions with others who do not reside in the same room or floor,” the ministry said.
The Building and Construction Authority has also stepped up inspections on safe management measures at construction worksites.
This includes conducting more checks on workers' compliance with zoning, or increased inspections at rest areas.
The Manpower Ministry assured migrant workers that access to round-the-clock medical assistance remains available. Measures are also in place to look after their mental well-being, including counselling hotlines in their native languages.
The ministry is also coordinating support from non-governmental organisations to provide calls and care packs to affected workers.
“In addition to protecting their health and safety, these measures seek to assure our migrant worker that their livelihoods will be safeguarded,” MOM said.
“Affected workers will continue to be paid their salaries for the duration of the quarantine, and their periods of absence from work will be treated as paid hospitalisation leave as part of workers’ leave eligibility under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act.”