During the multi-ministry task force press conference on Monday (27 April), Health Minister Gan Kim Yong revealed that 21,000 migrant workers in dormitories have been tested for COVID-19 so far.
“This means that one in 15 migrant workers in dormitories have been tested. This is far higher than the testing rates seen in other countries like Korea, which is one in 90, as well as other countries like the United States, United Kingdom, or even Hong Kong,” said the minister.
According to the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) latest situation report on the pandemic in Singapore, a total of 12,183 migrant workers in dormitories have been tested positive for COVID-19. Given that 21,000 migrant workers have been tested, that’s a 58% rate of infection among those living in dormitories, which is undeniably on the high side.
According to Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo, there are over 200,000 migrant workers residing in 43 dormitories in Singapore. This does not including workers living in factory-converted dormitories and worksite temporary housing such as in construction sites.
Although if we take Mr Gan’s estimation that one in 15 migrant workers in dormitories have been tested and 21,000 tests have been done, that’s about 315,000 workers in total living in dormitories.
So while 21,000 tests have already been done, what about the rest of the over 300,000 migrant workers in Singapore who have yet to be tested?
During the press conference, Mr Gan also rebutted claims that there has been reduced COVID-19 testing for migrant workers. He said, “Our testing capacity for migrant workers is about 3,000 a day. We have not reduced it. Instead, we have been increasing the capacity of testing of our migrant workers. The rate of testing has not slowed.”
Mr Gan added that every positive is added to the daily case numbers reported.
This confirmation from the Health Minister follows a remark made by infectious diseases expert Professor Dale Fisher who told CNA in an interview that the infection rate in some dormitories are so high that there is no need for testing anymore. The professor noted that once a person develops clinical respiratory illness, it is almost certain that they have COVID-19. Therefore, they are immediately placed in isolation.
During the briefing, Mr Gan explained that in dormitories which have been assessed to have an “extremely high” rate of infection, authorities are focusing efforts on isolation anyone who is symptomatic even without a confirmed test.
“This allows us to quickly provide medical care to these patients,” he said.
Testing capacity at 3,000 a day; will gradually increase to 8,000
During the press conference, Mr Gan also stated that authorities began by testing migrant workers at dormitories with a high number of confirmed cases. They have now also moved on to actively testing other dormitories, including factory-converted dormitories, as cases emerge.
Mr Gan said, “We are also actively testing around confirmed cases in these dormitories, where new cases are starting to emerge in an effort to isolate cases, and contain further transmission.”
He later added that at certain dormitories, authorities are conducting proactive case finding or “quite aggressive contact tracing”. He explained that some of the cases where identified and tested even before significant symptoms are developed, resulting in the time between symptoms and diagnosis to be significantly shorter within those dormitories.
The minister also noted that they have been building up the country’s COVID-19 testing capacity over the last few months.
MOH in its press statement on 27 April noted that Singapore is now able to conduct more than 8,000 tests per day from an average of 2,900 tests per day in early April.
To date, Singapore has tested about 2,100 per 100,000 persons. While MOH states that the higher intensity of testing allows the country to pick up far more cases than many other countries, such as United States and United Kingdom. But it is worth to note that for countries such as New Zealand and Brunei have tests at a higher intensity but still found lesser cases.
Mr Gan explained that the authorities are currently conducting targeting for specific groups like migrant workers in essential services and nursing home staff. He added that they will gradually expand this to a wider pool of essential employees.
Mr Gan stressed that testing remains a key prong in the task force’s strategy in the “war against COVID-19”, though he did also say that it is more important for everyone to play their part in preventing transmission.
On testing, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong—who co-chairs the task force with Mr Gan—said that testing capacity needs to be scaled up.
He said, “This capability to ramp up, build up more testing capacity is critical, as we seek, eventually, to resume and restart our economy.”
He emphasised Mr Gan’s point on personal responsibility and maintaining safe distancing measures.