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Like a 'giant N95 mask': Safer, faster COVID-19 testing of migrant workers with new mobile swab station

Like a 'giant N95 mask': Safer, faster COVID-19 testing of migrant workers with new mobile swab station

The mobile swab station is a modified SAF cross country ambulance. (Photo: MINDEF)

SINGAPORE: A new mobile swab station (MSS) will make it safer and faster for healthcare workers to test migrant workers for COVID-19 at dormitories.

The MSS is a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) cross country ambulance mounted at the rear, with a transparent booth with gloved holes for the tester's hands. The tester sits inside the ambulance, while the migrant worker stands outside.

The MSS is developed by the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), the Army's Maintenance and Engineering Support and ST Engineering.

The booth is identical to Singapore General Hospital's Swab Assurance For Everyone (SG SAFE) system that is being used in the hospital's emergency department to reduce risk of infection.

The ambulance is also fitted with a ventilation and filtration system that allows only clean air and droplets to enter the pressurised cabin. The transparent shield protects healthcare workers from contaminated droplets.

READ: COVID-19: 20,000 migrant workers to be discharged by end-May, but cases from dormitories likely to remain high

The MSS can also be deployed faster. It takes about 15 minutes to deploy, compared to the 30 minutes needed to set up the outdoor tents and tables typically used as testing facilities in many dormitories.

Since the MSS is essentially a vehicle, it can be re-deployed to different sites quicker, compared to packing up and loading the tents and tables in a separate vehicle.

A migrant worker being swab tested at the MSS. (Photo: MINDEF)

The mobile station can be set up and operated by three personnel: The driver, swab tester and another worker to collect the swab sample. The team said besides the driving, it is intuitive enough to be operated by non-SAF personnel.

One MSS, operational since Monday (May 11), has been deployed to three non-purpose-built dormitories, including factory-converted dormitories, construction temporary quarters and private residential premises.

The MSS' high-touch points like the screen and gloves are disinfected in between patients, and it will undergo a full wipe-down at the end of the day. (Photo: MINDEF)

Whether more mobile swab stations will be deployed to more locations will depend on the operational needs of the inter-agency task force handling the outbreak in dormitories.

"As the inter-agency task force expands their swab operations to non-purpose-
built dormitories, there is a need for swab operations to be set up at different sites on a daily basis," the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) said on Wednesday.

National Development Minster Lawrence Wong announced on Tuesday that all 323,000 foreign workers staying in dorms will be tested to ensure they are virus-free before resuming work.

About 3,000 tests are currently being conducted each day in the dormitories.

READ: Singapore lowers COVID-19 testing capacity in recent days amid laboratory issue


Besides the MSS, Army engineers have developed a mobile express scanner (MExS) to reduce the time needed for swab registration from four minutes to less than a minute.

Registration typically involves writing down a migrant worker's particulars, like name, date of birth and foreign identification number, in three places: A swab test request form, swab sample manifest list, and sticker to be pasted on the sample vial.

A migrant worker scanning his work permit on the mobile express scanner. (Photo: MINDEF)

Instead, healthcare workers can use the MExS, a mobile phone scanner, to scan the worker's work permit to automatically extract his particulars and store it in a secured central database. Swab labels can then printed and pasted on the forms and vials.

Since Saturday, 10 of such scanners have been deployed to 38 sites islandwide, covering about 2,000 patients.

A DSTA representative said there are plans to combine the two technologies.

"Our next step is to bring that registration counter into the cabin as well so that (fewer) people need to be outside and everything can be done within the cabin," its head of capability development (wheeled vehicles) Sebastian Lim, 45, said.

READ: 'We learned to smile with our eyes': Doctors volunteer to care for migrant workers at dormitories hit by COVID-19

MINDEF said the team is also working on two more MSS prototypes by end-June: a multi-utility vehicle (MUV, or large van) equipped with one swab station, and a 20-foot container equipped with three swab stations.

This allows the SAF to better support national requirements in the fight against COVID-19, it added.

"We want to be able to expand our options because they are different applications," Mr Lim said. "The ambulance and MUV are very mobile. The containers can be used for a slightly longer deployment time with more booths to make it more efficient as a system."

Still, Mr Lim said there is still room for improvement. "As we work with doctors discussing their workflow, they actually give a lot of suggestions on how we can reduce the workload and moving around," he added.

READ: Migrant workers with COVID-19 symptoms isolated before getting tested to prevent potential transmission 


On the ground, medical swab team leader Captain (Dr) Ivan Low, 26, said the MSS' air-conditioning and ergonomics make for a comfortable environment to work in.

The more sterile conditions inside mean healthcare workers only need to wear masks and gloves, as compared to full personal protective equipment (PPE) outdoors, such as gowns and face shields.

"My team feels much safer operating from within a clean environment," CPT Low said. "This is made possible by the ventilation and filtration system which essentially transforms the cabin into a giant N95 mask."

CPT Low said migrant workers he's attended to seem "pleasantly surprised" with the MSS, adding that they feel the testing process is more efficient. "The vehicle does seem safer both for them and the healthcare worker," he stated.

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Source: CNA/hz(mi)


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