‘Dedicated strategy’ to break COVID-19 spread in dormitories, including housing healthy workers in army camps
SINGAPORE: Foreign workers who are not sick and working in essential services will be housed separately, and more measures will be enforced to maintain hygiene and food supplies in dormitories, announced Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong on Thursday (Apr 9).
Military camps, Changi Exhibition Centre, vacant HDB flats and offshore floating lodgings have been identified as accommodation as part of efforts to temporarily house healthy essential workers separately from those quarantined in dormitories.
More than 5,000 workers have already moved out to army camps and vacant HDB blocks such as those at Tanjong Pagar and Jurong, Mr Wong noted, adding that capacity at these sites are in the “thousands”.
Offshore accommodation that typically houses offshore and marine workers will also be ready in a few days, Mr Wong said. Each of the “floating hotels” can typically take 500 workers.
“The key for all of these alternative venues, it’s not just a place to stay, but you need toilets, you need showering facilities,” he said.
Workers are being tested "aggressively” to separate those who are infected or suspected cases from those who are healthy in order to reduce the number of workers in each dorm and make the situation more manageable, Mr Wong added.
READ: Singapore reports a record 287 new COVID-19 cases with more than half linked to dormitory cluster
READ: COVID-19: Parents not allowed to drop children with grandparents on a daily basis, open-air stadiums to close
This comes as the number of COVID-19 cases in foreign worker dormitories has surged, with clusters emerging in nine dormitories across Singapore. The cluster at S11 Dormitory @ Punggol is the largest in Singapore, with 283 confirmed cases as of Apr 9.
Four dormitories housing 50,000 workers in total have been declared as isolation areas so far, meaning that the workers will not be allowed to leave their rooms for 14 days.
"DEDICATED STRATEGY" FOR FOREIGN WORKER DORMS
Speaking at a press conference, Mr Wong noted that although Singapore has seen foreign worker COVID-19 cases before, this spike in cases is “different because there are many more venues” outside of dormitories where the workers had either gathered or worked together.
“That's where the virus had spread amongst them, and then when they went back to their respective dorms, they transmitted it back to their fellow workers in these dormitories. Many had very mild symptoms, so they continued to work,” said Mr Wong.
“That's why there was a delay in picking them up. So it's very likely that the virus spread has been going around for some time in the dormitories, and we are now seeing all the indicators of it.”
Mr Wong added that Singapore is "dealing with two separate infections” - one happening in dormitories where numbers are rising sharply, and another in the general population where "numbers are more stable for now".
"That is why we need a different strategy – a dedicated strategy – for our foreign worker dormitories, because there is a greater spread of the virus in these dormitories, and there is also higher transmission rates given the large numbers of workers living in close quarters," he explained.
Calling it a "very major and urgent issue that requires active intervention", Mr Wong noted that an inter-agency task force was set up on Tuesday to deal with the situation.
The task force is now being advised by Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean.
"Given his experience, given that the SAF and the Police Force are involved in this work, his involvement has been very useful and helpful," Mr Wong said.
He that Singaporeans should be “mentally prepared” for the number of cases from foreign worker dormitories to continue to rise in the coming days and in the coming week or so.
"This will happen before they start to stabilise, but we do have a comprehensive strategy and measures are in place, and the agencies are now working round the clock to execute and implement them," he added.
Singapore announced 287 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, with 236 linked to other clusters or cases, 48 unlinked cases and three imported cases.
FOOD SUPPLIES, HYGIENE STANDARDS
Speaking at the press conference, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo said the current model of operations of the dormitories “has to go through major adjustments”.
“For example, at the dormitories, it was always the practice for the workers to prepare their own meals. This has to come to a stop,” she said. To protect the workers and reduce interaction, meals will be be provided, she added.
Giving the scale of the operations, she noted that at the S11 dormitory alone, 40,000 meals are delivered daily.
There were “initial glitches” in getting the food distributed, but she said that by now, most of the meals can be delivered to everyone within two hours.
READ: Living conditions at S11 Dormitory, Westlite Toh Guan dormitories have 'stabilised': Migrant Workers' Centre
Cleanliness and hygiene maintenance in the dormitories is another “major adjustment”, said Mrs Teo.
Toilets and rooms are now cleaned and disinfected at least three times a day, she said. Garbage is also cleared three times a day, up from just once a day.
“Previously, the workers left dormitories for the better part of the day, and were at their work sites, now they are spending all their time in the dormitories.
“What that means is that, in terms of the maintenance of the hygiene amenities as well as the cleanliness management, it is of a completely different order of magnitude, and we have to be able to take care of that too.”
Although all the dormitories have dedicated sick bays, these also have to be scaled up to “appropriately take care of those that we need to isolate”, Mrs Teo added.
The number of people in the dormitories also needs to be reduced to ensure effective safe distancing measures, she noted.
“This is really important. We have to get it right,” said Mrs Teo, adding that this includes ensuring all workers who are still residing in the dormitories adhere strictly to the safe distancing measures. For example, they should stay in their rooms and only leave their rooms to collect food or use the toilets.
“In the past, it was always the dorm operators that took care of these things. I think we have to step in and help the dorm operators because it is an enormous task to be able to implement these changes in a short time.
“So that we can effectively enhance the dorm management, we want to be able to stabilise new procedures, so that we can then replicate them and sustain these measures.”
Government officers have been deployed to work with dormitory operators to run the current dormitory operations. These 387 officers, comprising those from the police, Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and MOM, have been split into groups of nine. Each group works with one of the 43 dormitories - housing about 200,000 workers in total - in Singapore.
“Essentially, we are sparing no effort to contain the spread of the virus in the foreign worker dormitories. We have a responsibility for these foreign workers, they have come all the way here at considerable expense to make a living in Singapore,” said Mr Wong.
“So we will do our part, and we will do our very best to take care of them, and ensure their safety, and their well being, despite our best efforts at containing the situation.”
WORKERS MOVED TO MILITARY CAMPS
Some workers will be housed in parts of Bedok Camp II and Jurong Camp II, the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said in a Facebook post on Thursday night. The workers will progressively move in this week.
In a video showing workers moving into their new accommodation, MINDEF elaborated on the measures it is putting in place to house these workers.
The premises will house about 1,300 foreign workers during the "circuit breaker" period. They are "physically segregated" from other SAF facilities, said MINDEF, with hoarding put up to separate the accommodation blocks from the rest of the camp compound.
Before moving in, workers have to register and undergo medical checks to make sure they are well and do not have a fever or respiratory symptoms.
During their stay, workers will have to follow health and safety measures including temperature checks twice a day, staggered meal times and safe distancing.