Coronavirus: 20,000 recovered migrant workers ready to be discharged by end-May

Workers at the Covid-19 facility at Tanjong Pagar Terminal on May 9, 2020.
Workers at the Covid-19 facility at Tanjong Pagar Terminal on May 9, 2020.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE - By the end of the month, about 20,000 workers will be discharged from care facilities, and more will be expected to recover next month and be ready to resume work, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

To ensure that they are free of Covid-19 before they return to their dormitories and to work in the community, a testing strategy that includes the use of serology tests will be used, Mr Wong, co-chair of the multi-ministry task force tackling the coronavirus outbreak, said at a virtual press conference on Tuesday (May 12).

This type of test, which can detect if an individual has had Covid-19 in the past, will be applied to dormitories with high infection rates.

Positive test results from such serology tests will indicate that the workers have a history of Covid-19 infection, and have probably recovered, said Mr Wong. "After a period of isolation, we can assume they've recovered from the virus," he added.

Serological tests detect the presence of antibodies to the virus in the bloodstream. Antibodies are evidence of the body's reaction to an infection, and show that a person was previously infected. Their presence might also suggest that the person is now immune to the virus.

For workers who have tested negative for the serology tests, and for those in other dormitories, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests will be done to detect the presence of infection. About 3,000 tests are now being done on a daily basis in the dormitories, but that number will be stepped up in the coming weeks, said Mr Wong.

He added that the authorities are committed to testing all workers in the dormitories to ensure that they are free from infection.

While the situation is improving, the daily number of new cases remains high as active testing efforts are still under way, he said, including testing those who are asymptomatic and well.

Through the use of the PCR tests and serology tests, a systematic and thorough process can be put in place to verify the heath status of workers before they start work.

 
 
 

For instance, as a PCR test will not be able to detect the virus when it is in incubation, a worker who has tested negative the first time will be subject to a 14-day isolation period. He will need to have a second negative result after the isolation period to be confirmed to be clear of the virus, he said.

It may take several weeks before the dormitories, which house more than 300,000 workers, can be completely cleared, added Mr Wong. And even when workers have returned to work, a regular testing regime will also be put in place to prevent a recurrence of Covid-19 infections, he said.

At the briefing, Brigadier-General Seet Uei Lim, Chief Guards Officer in the Singapore Armed Forces who is in charge of the inter-agency task force handling the outbreak in dormitories, said plans are being made to help workers who have recovered from Covid-19 to return to work.

Blocks in dormitories have been set aside to house such workers so that they can resume work when their sectors gradually reopen, he said. But this will take some time, BG Seet said, as it requires the task force to move other workers out of the blocks so that they can be designated as "clean blocks" for the recovered workers.

He added that more than 20,000 workers have been moved out of dormitories and into alternative sites so far.

 
 
 

The issue of when recovered foreign workers from the dormitories will be allowed back to work when businesses restart will also hinge on a few factors, said the Health Ministry's director of medical services Kenneth Mak, including how Singapore eases circuit breaker measures and whether businesses can implement safeguards.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry and other government agencies are working on the details, he said.

"The assurance is (that) our foreign workers will return back to work, but the issue of timing is something that is currently still being worked through," said Associate Professor Mak.