Up to 3,000 coronavirus tests done daily, in 'very strategic' way

Between 1,500 and 2,500 tests for the coronavirus were being carried out daily on foreign workers. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF MANPOWER
Between 1,500 and 2,500 tests for the coronavirus were being carried out daily on foreign workers. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF MANPOWER

Singapore has been aggressively testing foreign workers for the coronavirus, even those who are well and have no symptoms, the multi-ministry task force told a press conference yesterday.

The authorities have opted to do targeted testing rather than testing every single person in the larger community, said Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who co-chairs the task force.

Singapore has a "very strategic way" of conducting tests, he explained. He said: "We have millions of Singaporeans, and we will not be able to test every one of them. So... we do targeted testing."

For instance, tests are done on essential workers who need to go out, to ensure that they are not carrying the infection while going to work.

The Health Ministry's director of medical services, Associate Professor Kenneth Mak, said: "That testing is to assure not just those of us within the task force, but also the public that the workers that are continuing to contribute are in fact not infected, and are not at risk of transmitting the infection to other people in the community."

A random testing programme, known as sentinel surveillance, is also used to pick up cases in the community that would otherwise have gone undetected. This programme is aimed at finding people who have the virus, but have very mild symptoms or do not complain of suspected Covid-19 infection.

Such testing has revealed that there are still cases of Covid-19 being transmitted in the community, some of whom remain infectious despite mild symptoms, said Mr Gan.

"That is why we need to put in extra effort (with) these circuit breaker measures, to make sure that we are able to bring down these community cases, particularly those that are unlinked," he said.

Prof Mak said that although the number of tests conducted varied on a daily basis, it could rise to between 2,800 and 3,000 on some days.

Between 1,500 and 2,500 of these tests were being carried out on foreign workers.

Mr Gan explained that testing helped to give a sense of the prevalence of Covid-19 in the dormitories, allowing the authorities to identify those where the disease is more widespread, and determine the level of response.

It also enables those in charge to identify infected patients and get them the necessary medical attention.

Noting that over 5,000 foreign workers had already tested positive for the virus, Prof Mak said: "We've in fact (tested) more than that, because there's also those (who) tested negative as well. So the number continues to grow."

But Singapore is prepared for the increased pace of testing. Earlier yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in an address to the nation, said that in addition to developing and manufacturing its own test kits, Singapore was also getting them from overseas.

Mr Gan explained during the press conference that this was intended to help keep testing options open here.

"We want to be able to also use different models, different test kits, different ways of testing," he said.

He added that the purchase of test kits from overseas was also intended to help Singapore increase its testing capacity and capabilities, in order to prepare for the eventual lifting of circuit breaker measures.

"Our testing is not just for now. For the moment we are focusing on foreign workers in our dormitories as well as our essential workers, but... as we progress in opening up our circuit breaker measures, we will need to increase our testing capability because we need to make sure that there is no transmission in the community - and in order to make sure that there's no transmission in the community, we need to test a lot more," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2020, with the headline 'Up to 3,000 tests done daily, in 'very strategic' way'. Print Edition | Subscribe