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Migrant workers sit outside their rooms at a dormitory in Singapore during the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Reuters

Coronavirus: Singapore’s Covid-19 cases to rise as not all migrant workers are being tested

  • Figures will ‘catch up’ as further tests take place, says director of medical services as number of cases nears 15,000
  • Lag is not due to ‘fudging or dodging’, he says, but because government is prioritising isolating workers over testing them
Singapore has reported a further 528 Covid-19 infections to bring its total to 14,951, with authorities saying the true number may be even higher as not all sick migrant workers are being tested.

The country’s director of medical services Kenneth Mak on Tuesday said the figures would “catch up” as further testing of the workers took place. However, he said this was not because the government was “fudging or dodging” cases, but because it was prioritising isolating infected workers over testing.

Mak said many of the workers thought to be infected were “very, very well” and showed minimal symptoms but would be tested before it was decided if they could go back into the community.

Singapore has seen a large increase in Covid-19 cases since the beginning of the month when it had just 1,000 cases. Almost 90 per cent of the new cases are among migrant workers, who are housed in cramped dormitories that help the virus to spread. Over the past week, cases in the rest of the community have averaged just 20 new cases per day.

Mak’s comments came after the infectious diseases expert Dale Fisher said at the weekend that the infection rate in some dormitories was so high that it was assumed all sick workers had the disease and all were being isolated immediately without testing.

Mak said: “We eventually will need to test all of them but [the] priority really is to get them out, make sure they’re properly isolated given the high rate of infection.

“So yes, when it comes to reporting, the number of foreign workers in dormitories that we are keeping a close eye on with respiratory symptoms may in fact be bigger than the actual number that we report.”

Coronavirus: why so few deaths among Singapore’s 14,000 infections?

Mak added that the government was focusing its testing capabilities on dormitories where there were fewer infections as there was a higher chance of disrupting transmission chains in these cases.

Singapore, population 5.7 million, now has the most infections in Southeast Asia and lags only China and India in the rest of Asia.

As of Monday, about 1,095 of those infected in the city state had recovered and 14 had died.

Authorities’ focus now is to ramp up care facilities to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed.

The city state currently has 10,000 beds in community care facilities where Covid-19 patients with mild symptoms are isolated and cared for by medical teams. It plans to double this figure by the end of June.

It also has 2,000 beds in community recovery facilities for patients who are stable after 14 days and do not require further medical care. It plans to increase this number to more than 10,000 by the end of June.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said the range of facilities matched the needs of Covid-19 patients. He said most of Singapore’s cases had mild or no symptoms and did not require extensive medical intervention. About 30 per cent required closer medical observation and treatment in hospital.

Singapore is also hoping to add 3,000 beds to the 4,000 spots it has in hotels and government chalets for patients awaiting the results of their swab tests. It also has 2,600 beds to isolate dormitory workers who have tested negative for Covid-19 but may have other illnesses.

The last giant joss stick makers of Singapore are burning to the end

Singapore is home to about 1 million foreign workers. Some 320,000 of them are in low-wage jobs shunned by citizens and live in mega-dorms or temporary accommodation on construction sites. Non-governmental organisations have criticised their cramped living conditions, in which as many as 12 to 20 men will share a room, and many more will share the same toilets and cooking facilities.

Since the beginning of the outbreak about 10,000 migrant workers in essential services such as cleaning have been moved to alternative housing sites including military camps, floating hotels, sports halls, cruise ships and vacant public flats.

The minister for national development Lawrence Wong said on Monday the government had an “extensive plan” to build new housing for foreign workers and that these new sites would be ready in a year or two.

In recent weeks, authorities have been aggressively testing workers in dorms, testing close to 3,000 every day, and can now test more than 8,000 a day compared to an average of 2,900 a day earlier this month.

Authorities say they have tested 2,100 people per 100,000 people, compared with 1,600 per 100,000 in the United States and 1,000 per 100,000 in Britain.

Meanwhile, foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan held a call with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on Tuesday. He assured China that Singapore would look after and treat Chinese workers. Both sides reaffirmed their commitment to keep supply chains open, especially for medical and food supplies.