SINGAPORE: About 20 COVID-19 cases at Changi Airport were “quite congregated” around one zone – an area that receives travellers from higher-risk regions, including South Asia, said Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday (May 14).
Speaking at a multi-ministry task force press conference, Mr Ong said the airport has plotted the first 20-odd infections, and they were mostly from one zone.
“This is the zone with a finger pier that receives higher-risk country arrivals, including (from) South Asia, and then the conveyer belt and immigration. So it’s that whole zone, and infections were all around that area,” said the minister.
“That zone is our equivalent of Ward 9D, like Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH).
“And from that zone, workers go have their lunch, go have their meals at the Terminal 3 Basement 2 commercial areas and the food court, and we suspect from there, it transmitted to members of the public that visited the place.”
Many of the COVID-19 cases in the TTSH cluster are linked to Ward 9D.
Mr Ong noted that more than 90 per cent of frontline workers at the airport have been vaccinated. Some cases linked to the airport cluster have tested preliminarily positive for the B1617 variant, which was first detected in India.
“But unfortunately this mutant virus (is) very virulent, it broke through the layers of defence,” he said.
“BIG WORRY” IS ONWARD COMMUNITY TRANSMISSION
In the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) daily preliminary update, 13 of the 24 new community cases reported on Friday were linked to the Changi Airport cluster. That means the cluster now has 59 cases.
Mr Ong said they are “cautiously hopeful” that the “worker cluster” at the airport can be contained through quarantine and testing.
“The big worry now is … the onward community transmission coming out of the commercial area in T3 B2.”
The first airport worker case was detected on May 6, noted Mr Ong. A Victoria Junior College student who tested positive on May 7 was linked to the cluster on May 11, after it was found that she had visited the Terminal 3 Basement 2 food court on the same day as two other cases.
“Immediately, the next day, we took action, closed down the entire commercial area in T3 Basement 2 for deep cleaning, and then we started special ops with MOH to test 9,000 workers in T1, T3 plus Jewel.”
As a precaution, Jewel has also been closed since Thursday for two weeks, he added.
As of Thursday night, 7,641 workers have been tested, and almost 6,000 workers have received their results. There were six positive cases, detected in the first two days of the special testing operations, said Mr Ong, adding that about 500 workers in Jewel have tested negative.
Workers who were in close contact with earlier cases are in quarantine and are being tested, said the minister.
“Everyday day for the past couple of days, there have been 10 cases. I think yesterday was 13 cases (who) tested positive. And this is the number that (has) been contributing to our community cases that have been reported,” he added.
Of the 28 workers who were infected, 19 of them were fully vaccinated. “And the last I checked, all are well, and no one is on oxygen,” said Mr Ong.
Adding that the airport has since tightened safety measures, Mr Ong said the airport will now be divided into higher-risk zones and lower-risk zones.
“In higher-risk zones, the workers are cohorted – so if you work in a higher risk zone you stay within that.”
Workers in higher risk zones also don full category 2 personal protective equipment (PPE), while cleaners don full category 1 PPE, said the Transport Minister. They will also have to take their meals within that zone.
“It’s a concept of segregation that they have started to implement,” he added.
With the aviation industry affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, workers at Changi Airport are facing “probably their biggest challenge since Singapore became independent”, said Mr Ong.
“And now they are hit with a COVID-19 cluster. They have been on the frontline, risking their own safety, day in day out for the past 16 months, for a task that is entrusted upon them, and I think they really did their best,” he added.
“(They) donned PPE, they observed safety precautions, put themselves through regular testing (every) 14 days, some seven days. When vaccines first came out, and Singaporeans were uncertain or jittery about vaccines, they decided to take the plunge first.”
He called for people to support airport workers during this time.
On Wednesday, MOH said it would offer free testing for members of the public who had visited Terminal 3 from May 3 onwards. The ministry on Thursday extended the free testing to those who visited Terminal 3 from May 1.
“MOH will progressively inform these individuals via SMS notification with information on how to book an appointment for their test,” it added.
All visitors to Terminal 1 and Jewel from May 1 onwards are also advised to monitor their health closely for 14 days from their date of visit and see a doctor if unwell.
“They are strongly encouraged to visit a regional screening centre or Swab and Send Home Public Health Preparedness Clinic for a free COVID-19 test if they feel unwell,” added MOH.