Coronavirus: Positive cases among workers can be expected even after dorms cleared

Dormitory residents observing safe distancing while waiting to collect their lunch early last month. For the final phase of testing, many workers come from dorms with higher prevalence of virus cases. This is why there has been a rise in confirmed ca
Dormitory residents observing safe distancing while waiting to collect their lunch early last month. For the final phase of testing, many workers come from dorms with higher prevalence of virus cases. This is why there has been a rise in confirmed cases from dorms in recent days, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Work to clear all workers will be finished soon, but periodic testing will still have to be done: Minister

As Singapore heads into the final stretch of testing and clearing all migrant workers in dormitories of the coronavirus by the middle of next month, the number of daily infections among this group can be expected to rise, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong said yesterday.

Even after all of the workers are cleared of the virus, Mr Wong, who is co-chair of a multi-ministry task force tackling the outbreak, cautioned that positive cases can still be expected, and regular testing will need to be done.

This is similar to the case for work permit holders in the community, such as those living in private residences or Housing Board flats, where positive cases have continued to be picked up, despite some of them serving a 28-day isolation period.

He was responding to a question during a virtual press conference on why there have consistently been positive cases among work pass holders in the community.

As of Thursday, around 232,000 workers have either recovered or been tested to be free of the virus. There are about 323,000 workers staying in dorms in Singapore.

About 94 per cent of the 47,453 confirmed coronavirus cases in Singapore as of yesterday are dorm residents.

Mr Wong said that for the final phase of testing, many of the workers come from dorms with higher prevalence of coronavirus cases. This is why there has been an increase in confirmed cases from dorms in recent days.

"We expect this trend to continue over the coming days. But the main point is we are completing the clearance of all the workers in the dormitories quite soon," he said, adding that this could be done by the middle of August or possibly earlier.

"So, we are doing everything we can to complete that work and to allow the workers to resume work safely thereafter."

He added that even after all of them are cleared, periodic, routine testing will have to be done every fortnight.

"And I would not be surprised at all that we will still pick up positive cases, and many of them may well be older infections, but it may very well happen - just as we are seeing this for workers in the community. I think the same situation will arise later on for workers in the dorms."

 
 
 

For workers in the community, because they are coming from a "high viral load environment" in their dorms or work sites, there is still a chance of them being infected even after serving an isolation period, said Mr Wong.

"When we find positive cases, we have to pull them aside. We do serology tests for some of them and we find that... many of them are older infections. And that is in a way looking at the tail end of coming off a very high viral load situation."

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong, who is co-chair of the multi-ministry task force, agreed that it is not going to be the case that there will be no more infections after all the workers in the dorms are tested and cleared.

This is because there will still be transmission in the community, which is happening even today in the local population. This is why cases of acute respiratory infections are being picked up. "The numbers are small, but they are ongoing," he said.

"And therefore there will always be risk that you will trigger another series of infections, going forward. So, even after clearing all the migrant workers and the dorms, you will still be picking up cases from time to time," said Mr Gan, adding that these may be old or new infections.

He called for vigilance even after all the workers are cleared of infection until there is an effective vaccine and the virus can be wiped out.

 
 

"Before that comes about, I think we have to learn to live with the virus in the community, and do what we can to reduce the number of infections, to slow down the transmission, so that we are able to contain and control the situation."

Mr Wong added that clearing all the workers of infections in dorms would be an important milestone.

"After the clusters in the dorms flared up, we have had to manage, contain and control the flare up, but now we are reaching the final stretch and are able to very soon complete the clearance... and eventually have these workers back at work."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2020, with the headline 'Positive cases among workers can be expected even after dorms cleared'. Print Edition | Subscribe