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Singapore isolates 1,200 migrant workers over COVID fears

Possible re-infections investigated as dorm cases hit double digits

An ambulance arrives at Singapore's Westlite Woodlands Dormitory after workers tested positive for COVID-19 on April 22.   © Reuters

SINGAPORE -- Coronavirus cases in Singapore's migrant worker community have crept into double digits for the first time in months, sending over 1,000 people into quarantine as authorities rush to prevent a repeat of the explosive dormitory clusters seen last year.

"We are always one case away from a big cluster, and we are also just one cluster away from a big wave," Health Minister Gan Kim Yong said on Thursday.

The Ministry of Health said the same day that 17 foreign nationals had been found to be COVID-19 positive -- all from the same Westlite Woodlands Dormitory in northern Singapore. "These cases were immediately isolated and conveyed to the National Centre for Infectious Diseases," the ministry said.

It added that an investigation was underway to confirm whether "they are re-infection cases." The 17 are known to have recovered from the disease, but the positive tests could be due to prolonged shedding of virus.

Dr. Tan See Leng, the second minister for manpower, later told a news conference that "about 1,200 workers were tested and placed under quarantine." He said over 1,000 had been placed in government quarantine facilities, with the rest isolated at the dorm.

At the same briefing, Health Minister Gan stressed: "We are always on our toes and we take every case seriously, and we investigate very thoroughly, to find out where the case came from, where is the source, and to follow through to ensure and to track all the close contacts to prevent further transmission. That is how we actually picked up this cluster at Westlite."

The news conference confirmed reports based on a letter from Westlite's operator, a company called Centurion, that had circulated online and revealed the quarantine plan. Centurion also issued a statement on Thursday confirming the letter's authenticity.

"The document was issued by Westlite Woodlands yesterday to employers as an early alert to ensure that necessary measures affecting their workers could be quickly carried out for the safety and welfare of the workers and the wider community," the company said.

The scare comes after months of relative calm, as Singapore has brought COVID-19 largely under control and commenced a gradual reopening. The city-state is preparing to welcome global luminaries at the World Economic Forum's special "Davos" summit in August.

Earlier this week, another laborer at Westlite Woodlands tested positive. That individual had received two vaccine doses, on March 12 and April 13, though experts say it takes another 14 days or so for full immunity to kick in after either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines Singapore is using.

The man, a 35-year-old from Bangladesh, was detected as a positive case through routine testing in place for foreign workers.

"As it typically takes a few weeks for an individual to build up immunity after completing vaccination, he was likely to have been infected before he was conferred protection after vaccination," the Health Ministry said of this case.

Although Singapore's numbers are tiny compared with the surges currently seen in other countries, infections in dormitories are particularly alarming after the city-state's experience in 2020. These densely packed dorms saw thousands of cases and drew criticism for their poor conditions.

All told, Singapore has recorded over 60,000 COVID cases to date, with dorm residents accounting for a large portion.

This week's cases follow another migrant worker infection that caught attention earlier this month. That worker, a 23-year-old Indian national, had been staying in a different dorm in the south of the city-state and tested positive well over a month after being fully vaccinated.

As for Westlite, the Health Ministry on Thursday explained that preventive measures "include imposing quarantine orders on workers at the affected blocks and widening the extent of the special testing operations to the entire dormitory."

The ministry also said that "recovered dormitory-dwelling workers and [construction, marine and process] workers who are living in Singapore" would no longer be exempt from routine testing. Out of concern that immunity may diminish over time, they will be placed back on the testing roster once they pass 270 days from their infection.

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