'Painstaking' contact tracing work by SPF led to discovery of possible cluster at Paya Lebar church: Shanmugam
SINGAPORE: The Singapore Police Force (SPF) is assisting the Health Ministry (MOH) with the "very important" task of contact tracing and had helped uncover a possible coronavirus cluster at a Paya Lebar church, said Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam on Tuesday (Feb 11).
Speaking to reporters during a visit to the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) Command Centre, Mr Shanmugam said that the process of contact tracing involves "a lot of careful investigative work".
"It is a very important task. When you have someone who is diagnosed as having the illness, you want to be able to trace back to all the people he or she met, both in terms of who he or she could have got it from, and also who he or she may have passed it on to.
"And you have to identify the type of contact. It’s got to be close contact," he explained.
"It requires interviewing the individual and then a lot of careful investigative work, such as tracking the person’s movements over a period of time. You can imagine that in a place like Singapore with its frequency of movement and the frequency of contacts - a case in any city - that this is not an easy task. So they are doing it very intensely."
READ: 2 new coronavirus cases in Singapore, including Certis Cisco employee who served quarantine orders
On Monday, Singapore reported two more confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, one of whom is a Certis Cisco employee who had served quarantine orders on two people from Wuhan. The other patient is a two-year-old girl who was among the Singaporeans evacuated from Wuhan on Jan 30.
There have now been 45 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Singapore. Seven have been discharged from hospital and seven are in critical condition.
"In some ways, these are the kind of things they do in the context of normal investigations. The purpose, of course, is different. The intensity, the speed and the amount of work may also be different," said Mr Shanmugam of the contact tracing team, which consists of officers from the Central Narcotics Bureau, the CID and land divisions.
"In the context of the investigation of a crime, it’s very focused. But here you are talking about all contacts the person may have had and then narrowing it down," he added.
"MOH will do the first cut in terms of interviewing the patient and identifying some data and then passes this over, and these officers then run through the whole investigative process."
UNCOVERING A POSSIBLE CLUSTER
Five cases have been linked to a possible cluster at The Life Church and Missions, which is located at 146B Paya Lebar Road.
This includes a married couple from Wuhan (cases 8 and 9) as well as three Singaporeans (cases 31, 33 and 38) who had visited the church.
While cases 31 and 33, which were first announced on Feb 7, initially appeared as unlinked local transmission cases, the police later discovered that both patients had attended the same church, on the same day (Jan 19) at around the same time.
READ: Church linked to possible coronavirus cluster engaged cleaning company to disinfect premises, will suspend meetings
As services conducted in Mandarin were available at the church, police surmised there were links to cases reported earlier. They studied this possibility and found that four previous patients had arrived in Singapore on or before Jan 19.
After reaching out to these individuals for further information, it was found that cases 8 and 9 had arrived in Singapore in the early hours of Jan 19 and had gone to church that morning.
The contact tracing team managed to establish these links within a day.
"Some of the officers who were doing this (tracing) noticed that some of those in Singapore had gone to a certain church in Macpherson, The Life Church and Missions Singapore," said Mr Shanmugam.
"The two cases, 8 and 9, also had been to that church and so they dug in more. The key thing here was to first identify carefully and track the movements, step by step and then pick out the similarities. It is a lot of painstaking work, as you can imagine, because these are movements over several days to different places," he added.
"Tracking each one's movements and then comparing against the movements of others and identifying the commonalities... They did very well there.
"They are trying to do similar sort of work for the other cases," said Mr Shanmugam.