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Covid-19 re-emerges in previously cleared migrant dormitories

Bloomberg • 3 min read
Covid-19 re-emerges in previously cleared migrant dormitories
Epidemiological investigations and contact tracing data released on Sunday evening showed 25 newly or recently confirmed infections are linked as part of three new clusters at the dorms.
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Singapore is seeing a continued resurgence of Covid-19 clusters in migrant worker dormitories which had previously been declared cleared of the virus, although the risk of wider contagion appears to be small.

Epidemiological investigations and contact tracing data released on Sunday evening showed 25 newly or recently confirmed infections are linked as part of three new clusters at the dorms. That brings the number of dorm clusters found in the past week to 12, the Straits Times reported.

The number of daily new cases in the city-state have dwindled to just dozens, following a months-long national effort to test, isolate and treat the high-risk foreign worker community. Dorms housing the low-paid labourers that underpin Singapore’s construction and services sectors account for nearly 95% of the country’s 57,000 total confirmed infections, according to Ministry of Health data. At the start of lockdown measures in April, the dormitories housed more than 300,000 people.

Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases physician at Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital, said the resurgence at the dormitories does pose a threat to the country’s virus response strategy, but that the outbreak seems contained for the time being.

“The threat looms, but if it was a problem, it should have surfaced -- it hasn’t,” he said. “The mask and social distancing culture seems to be working in the foreign worker dormitories. The risk of transmission to Singaporeans remains relatively low.”

Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower on Aug. 19 declared that all dormitories had been cleared of the virus. Yet just four days later, the government announced stay-home notices for around 4,800 workers, after 58 cases were linked to a cluster at Sungei Tengah Lodge, a purpose-built dormitory.

The re-emergence of cases at worker dormitories shows the continued difficulties faced by nations around the world to curb the disease. Japan recently experienced its largest wave of coronavirus infections yet after a previous peak in April. The South Korean government this month extended stricter social distancing restrictions in greater Seoul following a flareup of its own. The pandemic is likely to be a challenge for years to come even with a vaccine, according to pharmaceutical and public-health experts.

After initially being lauded for its virus response in the earliest weeks of the Covid outbreak, an explosion in infections in the foreign worker dorms 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.

Last month, Singapore’s Inter-Agency Taskforce found that cases have been occurring in quarantine facilities where the migrant workers were placed after being exposed to other infectious cases, according to Kenneth Mak, the health ministry’s director of medical services. Speaking during a press briefing on Aug. 21, he added that they are also “looking very carefully” at any possible reinfections following what was said to be the first such case in Hong Kong last month.

“Besides the polymerase chain reaction test, we have also conducted serological tests to determine if some of these cases are current or past infections,” the health ministry said in the Sept. 6 press release, regarding the new dormitory cases. “The serological test result for one case has come back positive so far, which indicates likely past infection.”

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