National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced on Tuesday (12 May) that all 323,000 migrant workers staying in dormitories will be tested for the highly contagious COVID-19 in order to be certain that they are virus-free before they return to their dormitories and resume work after the circuit break period ends on 1 June.
Explaining how this will be done to reporters at a virtual press conference, Mr Wong said that the Government will be implementing a testing strategy via mass polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests and mass serological tests. He added that this is part of the Government’s “systematic” approach to make sure the virus is completed cleared in dormitories.
The first test that will be carried out is the serology test and it will be conducted 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.
However, those who have been tested negative for serology tests will have to undergo a 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.
Mr Wong also 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.
On how fast the test can be done on migrant workers depends on a number of factors, including the extent in which Singapore can increase its testing capacity as well as if the workers will be required to be quarantined or isolated.
As such, Mr Wong explained that completing the testing process could take a few weeks, meaning going into next month or July.
When asked on a estimation of the percentage of workers in dormitories who would have been tested positive for the novel coronavirus at the end of the testing process, Mr Wong stated that the real underlying prevalence rate will only be known once all the tests have been done.
In case the prevalence rate is low, then the dormitories can be cleared of the virus much faster. However, if the rate is high, then more steps will be required to isolate and quarantine workers.
Testing rate among migrant workers
As of now, more than 32,000 workers living in dormitories have been tested for the coronavirus, which is only 10 percent of the overall number of migrant workers living in dormitories in the country. There are a total of 323,000 migrant workers staying in dorms in Singapore.
Of these tested workers, 23,008 of have been confirmed to be infected with the deadly coronavirus. Additionally, 434 individuals with work permit who are not residing in dorms have also been tested positive for the virus.
In fact, as of 12 May, the total number of infections in the country stands at 25,346, meaning that the largest chunk of cases are among migrant workers living in dormitories.
Given the spike of COVID-19 cases within the workers in dormitories, the Government has gazetted 25 dormitories as isolation areas to prevent the virus from spreading further into the community. This means that these workers are confined to their rooms with catered meals be supplied to them.
Ever since the Government announced the first dormitory to be gazetted as an isolation area, these mega-sized dorms have come under severe public scrutiny due to its poor living conditions. In fact, several media reports had highlighted the unsanitary and crowded living condition at the dorms where kitchens are infested with cockroaches, toilets are overflowing, and rubbish bins are flooded with garbage.
Additionally, some of these dormitories can house up to 20 people in a single room, throwing out the possibility for these migrant workers to adhere to the social distancing measures.
For example, S11 Dormitory, one of the first few dorms to be gazetted as an isolation area, is the largest cluster of the coronavirus in Singapore. It has 2,562 confirmed cases of the virus so far, and the dorm has a capacity of housing more than 10,000 people.
Professor Dale Fisher, senior consultant at the Division of Infectious Diseases in National University Hospital (NUH), told CNA in an interview last month that Singapore is still in the very early stages of sorting out the pandemic as efforts are ramping up.
“The numbers are not really coming down, it is a function of the test”, said Prof Fisher, who also chairs the Singapore National Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) committee.
“For the dormitories, the positivity rate is so high, you get to the point where you don’t need to test any more.
“But let’s just say if you have a clinical respiratory illness … Then you almost certainly have COVID. So we put those into isolation straight away,” he added.
If that’s not all, 671 new cases of COVID-19 that was reported yesterday (12 May) were among migrant workers living in dormitories. This latest figure shows that more than 7 per cent of the overall 323,000 workers in dorms are now infected with the novel coronavirus, a prevalence rate much higher than the 0.07 percent among work permit holders outside of dorms and the 0.03 percent among Singaporeans, pass holders and PRs.
MOH explained that this is due to extensive testing in both purpose-built dormitories and factory-converted dormitories in the country. As the Government plans to test all 323,000 workers, this could possibly take the number of cases in Singapore to another high.