3-pronged strategy in place to stop coronavirus spread in dorms

Dormitories have become a growing concern in the current outbreak, with at least 15 clusters at these sites so far. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

A three-pronged strategy has been adopted to arrest the spread of the coronavirus in foreign worker dormitories, said Manpower Minister Josephine Teo yesterday.

This includes preventing clusters from forming in non-infected dormitories, as well as moving essential workers out of factory-converted dormitories, so that isolation facilities can be created with this vacated space, she added.

Speaking at a multi-ministry press conference, Mrs Teo said the "immediate priority" was for the workers in the dormitories to stay healthy and to minimise the number who become infected.

Dormitories for workers have become a growing concern in the current outbreak, with at least 15 clusters at these sites so far.

There are 43 purpose-built dormitories in Singapore that together house about 200,000 workers.

Mrs Teo said dormitories where there are already clusters have first been locked down to contain the spread, so there will be no more movement in or out of them.

Workers must stay in their rooms as much as possible and minimise interactions with others. Meals are being provided to avoid communal cooking, and communal toilets will have scheduled staggered shower times.

Second, even dormitories that have no clusters - which make up 29 out of the 43 purpose-built and almost all factory-converted dorms - are also "effectively" in lockdown, said Mrs Teo.

"While these dorms are not gazetted as isolation areas, we aim to apply the same safe distancing measures so that they are effectively also on lockdown."

The workers have to stay in the dorms, and there will be no more cooking and freely mixing with others from other housing units. The aim is to prevent clusters from forming, she added.

Third, workers in purpose-built dormitories who are working in essential services, numbering about 7,000, are being moved out to other premises, after first being screened to make sure they do not have symptoms.

They will be required to carry out strict safe distancing while at the workplace or travelling to and from work, such as wearing a mask at all times, eating meals alone and not interacting with other workers.

"And like all Singaporeans, they will be required to remain in their residences after work. We hold the employers of these essential workers responsible and we look to them to do their utmost to keep their workers safe, even as they go about their duties," said Mrs Teo.

To implement this strategy effectively, Fast teams deployed to all dormitories, medical support teams, and dormitory operators and employers will have to play their parts, said Mrs Teo.

Fast stands for forward assurance and support, and each team comprises nine officers. They are formed by Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) or police officers and personnel from the Ministry of Manpower (MOM). The mission of these teams is to put worker welfare as their top priority, said Mrs Teo.

Medical teams will tend to unwell workers, test those who have respiratory symptoms, and work with the Fast teams to set up on-site isolation facilities.

The dormitory operators will help to handle food and hygiene matters, while employers have the duty to ensure workers' salaries are paid in a timely manner.

The Fast teams, which have already been deployed to all 43 purpose-built dormitories, are trained and deployed by an inter-agency task force, set up on April 7, which reports to MOM Permanent Secretary Aubeck Kam.

It has four deputies - from MOM, the Ministry of Health, the police and the SAF, and is commanded by the SAF's Chief Guards Officer, Brigadier-General Seet Uei Lim.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2020, with the headline 3-pronged strategy in place to stop coronavirus spread in dorms. Subscribe