SINGAPORE - More than 70 people lined up at a temporary facility under a Hougang Avenue 8 block on Friday morning (June 4), as residents and shopkeepers waited for their mandatory Covid-19 swab tests.
A major swabbing exercise for residents of Block 506 Hougang Avenue 8 and those working nearby - possibly the largest of its kind here to date - also includes voluntary testing for seven other blocks nearby, on the heels of new infections in the area.
The effort comes amid an increase in community cases in Singapore, as well as ramped-up efforts to test and contain the virus.
Testing is one of three strategies, on top of contact tracing and vaccinations, to help the nation battle Covid-19 in the face of new, more contagious variants.
The mandatory testing, announced by the Ministry of Health (MOH) on Thursday, is for residents of Block 506, as well as for staff of shops in seven neighbouring blocks.
For those living in the block, Friday's tests are the second swab they are taking in two weeks, having been tested over two days last month, on May 21 and 22.
MOH had said on May 20 that it had found that a few Covid-19 patients reside at Block 506 Hougang Avenue 8, and called for the mandatory tests for all residents of the block as a precautionary measure.
A new Covid-19 cluster of 13 cases linked to the block was announced by MOH on Thursday.
The neighbouring blocks where residents are encouraged to go for testing are Block 511 Hougang Avenue 10; Blocks 681, 683 and 684 Hougang Avenue 8; Block 682 Hougang Avenue 4; and Blocks 685 and 698 Hougang Street 61.
Even before 9am, when testing started, at least 15 people were already waiting in line for their swabs, most of them shopkeepers in the area.
Mr Chuah Soon Li, who operates an aquarium shop at Block 684, was the first in line.
"I thought it was good to get this over with before I started work for the day," said the 54-year-old, who added that he arrived at about 8.10am.
"I'm not too worried about the situation despite the cluster here. The virus has spread throughout the island after all," he added.
"If I wear my mask, take precautions, everything should be okay."
A vegetable seller at the Block 681 wet market, Ms Chng Chek Wan, was also in the queue.
Said the Hougang resident: "Seeing the various swabbing exercises that have been done here, I've definitely been worried.
"I'm thankful for this chance to get tested, because if I'm negative, at least that gives me peace of mind," the 54-year-old added.
A resident of Block 506, who gave his name only as Mr Ang, said he had mixed feelings about getting called up for a second test in two weeks.
"The situation looks bad if we're getting tested so often, but I'm also appreciative of the steps that the authorities are taking to stop the virus' spread," said the 37-year-old who works in retail.
The ministry said on Thursday that it will also be conducting voluntary testing for those who were at the seven neighbouring blocks, to prevent further spread and detect asymptomatic cases. Residents and visitors who were at the blocks between May 19 and Thursday are encouraged to undergo testing between Friday and June 17.
A temporary testing facility was set up in a Housing Board pavilion at Block 685A Hougang Street 61 for this purpose.
When The Straits Times visited the temporary facility on Friday morning at about 8.45am, about 10 people were in line for the swabs, with more arriving in a steady stream.
Block 698 resident Julie Raju said she decided to get swabbed since she has not been vaccinated yet, and wanted to keep her three-year-old safe.
"I've visited the supermarkets in the neighbourhood. The rise in Covid-19 cases in Hougang has made me a bit panicked. If I get Covid-19, I can probably recover, but it may be harder for my child and I need to take care of her," said the 27-year-old engineer.
She learnt about the voluntary testing operations through an SMS sent to her on Thursday night.
Another resident, Ms Huang Yuan Yuan, who rents a flat in Block 683, said: "I decided to get tested as a safety precaution, I'm also worried if I might be infected."
The 36-year-old operations executive, who lives with a friend, said she will remain at home until her test results are returned.
Several amenities near Block 506, such as supermarket outlets, fast-food restaurants, food stalls and shops, are located in the neighbouring blocks, four of which are part of the Hougang Village neighbourhood centre.
MOH said on Thursday night that the mandatory testing is to detect cases who were still incubating the virus in the first round of testing and to prevent spread in the community.
"Since the last testing operations conducted at 506 Hougang Avenue 8 on May 21 and 22, there have been new cases of Covid-19 infection in 506 Hougang Avenue 8 and the neighbouring blocks. Covid-19 viral fragments were also detected in wastewater samples collected from some of these blocks," said MOH in a statement.
On Friday morning, Aljunied GRC MP Gerald Giam, who is vice-chairman of the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, said that Covid-19 positive cases had visited the common areas of Block 511, such as a coffee shop that is in the block.
Referring to residents of Block 506, he said: "Whether they express it or not, definitely it is a hassle for them to have to come down for a second time."
He added that some were wondering if the swabs would become a routine every two weeks.
"The answer is that we don't know for sure," he said.
"The reason why there is another round of swabbing is that new cases were discovered in Block 506. What we do ask is for the residents' understanding... we know it's not easy."
Mr Darryl David, an MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, which six of the neighbouring blocks are under, visited the Block 685A testing site on Friday and went around in Hougang Village to encourage tenants and shop staff to go for Covid-19 tests.
He said residents of the six blocks were “largely quite positive” and that they were “very supportive” of the voluntary swabbing exercise. He added that some had turned up for the swabs even before the exercise’s 9am start time.
With Friday's tests, a total of 10 HDB blocks in the area around Hougang Avenue 8 will have been offered tests.
On Thursday, a three-day mandatory exercise for 828 residents and visitors of Blocks 501 and 507 Hougang Avenue 8 was completed. The tests were called for after Covid-19 viral fragments were detected in wastewater samples collected from these two blocks.
As at 8pm on Thursday, 680 tests returned negative, while one tested positive, said MOH.