Singapore finds new virus clusters in cleared worker dorms

Dorms housing low-paid foreign workers made up vast majority of country’s cases

SINGAPORE • Singapore has found three new virus clusters in migrant worker dormitories previously declared cleared of the disease, reviving concerns over the source of infections that has challenged the city-state’s strategy to contain Covid-19.

The Ministry of Health announced 49 new cases on Wednesday, of which 43 were people residing in the dormitories. Of the dormitory cases, 14 were contacts of earlier cases and already quarantined, with 29 detected through surveillance testing, it said.

Changi Lodge II at 80 Tanah Merah Coast Road was linked to six cases, North Coast Lodge in Admiralty was tied to seven cases and two new patients from Toh Guan Dormitory at 19A Toh Guan

Road East were linked to five previous cases, according to the ministry. These new clusters add to other clusters that have been identified in the dormitories, it said in a statement.

Dorms housing the low-paid foreign workers that underpin Singapore’s construction and services sectors have made up the vast majority of the country’s cases. An explosion in infections saw Singapore pivot to a more restrictive approach to the virus, imposing a lockdown in April that shuttered restaurants and offices and triggered a rethink of its testing strategy.

The re-emergence of clusters in the dorms — where workers live in close quarters — reflects the difficulties Singapore and other nations have experienced in stamping out the virus, which is highly contagious and can manifest with little or no symptoms.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech on Wednesday that the country would have acted more aggressively and sooner on the migrant worker dormitories given what it knows now about the asymptomatic and infectious nature of the disease. He said that while authorities stepped up precautions it thought were adequate, bigger clusters broke out in the dorms that “threatened to overwhelm us”.

The persistent infections at the facilities come even after a concerted effort by authorities over months to clear them of the virus through aggressive testing and quarantines. On Aug 19, the Manpower Ministry said all workers living in dormitories have either recovered or have been tested to be free from the virus.

The recurrence of infections in the dorms means that thousands of workers have had to be placed on stay-home notice again, while some worksites have had to pause

their projects in order to disinfect areas and review safe management measures. As part of these measures, employers have to ensure that dorm workers as well as those in the construction sectors go for routine testing every 14 days, but implementation of this has been a challenge.

“Having people in closed, indoor environments that are very crowded and possibly unsanitary will always pose a risk of outbreaks,” Raina MacIntyre, professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales. “It is not only the accumulation of respiratory aerosols in closed environments that poses a risk, but also shared toilets.”

She said health officials need to enhance surveillance and testing at the sites, and provide more space, better ventilation and fewer people per toilet.

Among the new clusters discovered, Toh Guan had been declared cleared of Covid-19 on Aug 8 by the Health Ministry, CNA

reported, noting that it had more than 1,300 cases before that time. CNA said Changi Lodge II had been declared cleared in July after having more than 500 cases, and North Coast Lodge had more than 650 cases before it was declared cleared last month.

The Health Ministry said in its Wednesday statement that besides the polymerase chain reaction test, it also conducted serological tests to determine if some of these cases are current or past infections. Results for the serological test, which identify antibodies in blood samples, have returned 23 positive cases so far, indicating likely past infections, it said.

Singapore reported 48 new cases of virus yesterday (at press time), comprising two community and five imported cases. This brings the total confirmed cases in the nation close to 57,000, though more than 55,000 people have recovered. — Bloomberg