About 20,000 migrant workers will be discharged from care facilities by the end of May, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong at a virtual press conference on Tuesday (12 May), adding that more are expected to recover next month.
To ensure that these workers are truly free of the COVID-19 virus before returning to their dormitories and resuming work after the circuit breaker period ends on 1 June, Mr Wong noted that a testing strategy will be conducted. First, serology tests will be carried out at dormitories with high infection rates.
The test will detect the presence of antibodies to the virus in a person’s bloodstream, indicating that they have been infected with the virus in the past and have recovered. Antibodies may also suggest that the individual is now immune to the virus.
Mr Wong said, “After a period of isolation, we can assume they’ve recovered from the virus.”
Those who have been tested negative for serology tests, however, will have to undergo a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to detect the presence of an infection. He noted that about 3,000 of these tests are being done each day in migrant worker dormitories and that testing will be ramped up in the next few weeks. PCR tests will be conducted at other dorms with lower infection rates as well.
Mr Wong said that PCR tests will either be done individually or in batches, meaning in pooled testing.
He asserted that authorities are committed to testing all workers in dormitories to ensure that they are infection-free. He explained that the daily number of new cases will remain high as active testing efforts are still ongoing, including testing workers who appear to be asymptomatic. However, the situation is improving, he remarked.
The Minister explained that serology and PCR tests are part of a systematic and thorough process which can be implemented to verify the health status of workers before they get back to work and to “clear the dorms”.
Mr Wong added that a PCR test is unable to detect the virus if it is still in incubation, meaning that a worker who has tested negative the first time will still have to be isolated for 14-days and get a second negative test result after that before he is confirmed to be clear of the virus.
As such, he said it would take weeks for all the dormitories to be completely cleared. He added that even after the 300,000 migrant workers return to work, there will be a regular testing regime in place to prevent a resurgence of infections.
Also at the briefing was Brigadier-General Seet Uei Lim, the Chief Guards Office in the Singapore Armed Forces in charge of the inter-agency task force managing the outbreak in dormitories around the country, who hinted that recovered workers will receive assistance to help them return to work.
Certain blocks in various dormitories have been selected to house these recovered workers so that they can get back to work as their sectors reopen. However, BG Seet stated that this may take some time as other workers have to be relocated in order to declare said area as “clean blocks” for recovered workers.
He said that over 20,000 workers have already been moved out of those dormitories to alternative locations.
Regarding when workers can resume work after businesses reopen, it depends on several factors, noted Kenneth Mak, the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) Director of Medical Service. These factors include how the country decides to ease circuit breaker measures and whether businesses are able to implement and adhere to safeguards.
Associate Professor Mak said that the Ministry of Trade and Industry together with other agencies are working out the details.
“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,” he remarked.
Just over two weeks ago on 28 April, Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said that 21,000 migrant workers living in dormitories have been tested for the virus so far. That’s about one in 15 workers, he said. At the time, 12,183 worker in dormitories were confirmed to have the virus. Currently, that number stands at 22,334 cases among migrant workers in dormitories.
Mr Gan also said then that testing capacity for migrant workers was at about 3,000 a day, and that the MOH is increasing its testing capacity.
It is uncertain if the testing that Mr Wong referred to in yesterday’s briefing—serology tests—are the same tests that Mr Gan referred to in April when talking about ramping up testing capacity for migrant workers.