Worker recovers from Covid-19 but admin error by Singapore MOH causes delay in employer being notified

On July 13, 2020, a migrant worker’s status on the SGWorkPass mobile application turned red, indicating that he is not allowed to go to work, but it was also stated in the app that he was “cleared” of Covid-19, his employer said. — TODAY pic
On July 13, 2020, a migrant worker’s status on the SGWorkPass mobile application turned red, indicating that he is not allowed to go to work, but it was also stated in the app that he was “cleared” of Covid-19, his employer said. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Aug 1 — A migrant worker could not go to work for five days after an administrative error by the Ministry of Health (MOH) delayed a notification to his employer that he was cleared of Covid-19. 

During this time, the employer said that he was getting mixed messages about the infection status of the worker, who does not reside at a dormitory.

This incident is not the first. TODAY reported previously that an administrative error by MOH and the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) led to a migrant worker being informed that he tested positive for Covid-19 three weeks after he was swabbed. 

What happened

For the latest case, the migrant worker was hired by a company that does civil engineering work and contractor projects, and he had been working and going for regular testing.

Under regulations by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA), all migrant workers must go through periodic pooled testing — where the swab samples of several individuals are mixed into one as though they were one sample. A negative result from this would indicate that all individuals in the sample are likely to not have Covid-19, and is less resource-intensive compared to individual testing. 

The proactive testing is part of the Singapore government’s measures to ensure the safe reopening of the economy after the circuit breaker to contain the spread of Covid-19 ended on June 1.

The worker’s employer, who did not want to be named, said that the worker went on June 4 for a scheduled pooled testing at the regional screening centre at The [email protected] Bay.

He also had to go for an individual swab test at Farrer Park Hospital on June 8.

On June 22, the worker went for another scheduled pooled testing and was again individually swabbed on June 25 at the same venues. 

The employer told TODAY that he did not receive the results of the worker’s first individual test and thus assumed that all was well. For the second individual test, he was informed by BCA that the result was negative for Covid-19. 

On June 27, BCA then notified the employer that the worker would need to undergo a serological test on June 29. However, neither the worker nor the employer were informed of the test result. 

A serological test is used to check if a person had an infection in the past, or on someone who is asymptomatic or has a very low viral load.

On July 13, the worker’s status on the SGWorkPass mobile application turned red, indicating that he is not allowed to go to work. However, it was also stated in the app that he was “cleared” of Covid-19, the employer said.

The app is used to check the validity of Singapore work passes issued by MOM and is now also used as a tool to check if pass-holders, such as migrant workers, are cleared of Covid-19 and can leave their dormitories or residences for work, based on the status of the coded system.

As a result of this new status, the employer spent the next few days seeking answers from BCA, MOH and MOM, but no one could explain the discrepancy, he said.

Then on July 17, the app indicated that the worker had an active infection, yet there was no official notice or isolation order from the authorities, the employer said.

Later that day, an officer from the inter-agency task force handling the Covid-19 situation at foreign worker dormitories advised the employer to keep the worker away from work. 

Finally, on July 21, the employer received a discharge letter from MOH dated June 30, stating that the worker no longer has Covid-19 and could resume his work duties. 

In all, it took more than a week before the employer could get a definitive answer that the worker is cleared to go to work, but he could not work for five days in the meantime.

What MOH says

Responding to queries from TODAY, MOH said that a “discharge memo” given to recovered Covid-19 cases was not issued earlier to the worker “due to an administrative error”.

The ministry issued the discharge memo on June 30 after the test was done on June 29, but due to the “error”, the worker or the employer did not receive it until much later.

MOH added that it has personally approached the employer to explain the situation to him. 

Elaborating on why the tests were arranged, MOH said that the result of the first pooled test done on June 4 was inconclusive whereas the second pooled test done on June 22 came back positive. 

In such circumstances, “individual re-swabs are arranged to ascertain which one of the pooled samples might be Covid-19-positive”. 

The worker then went for an individual swab test on June 8 and 25 and both results came back negative. And because the protocol mandates that only workers who test positive will be informed, that was why the employer and the worker did not hear from MOH about the test results.

In relation to the second pooled test where the sample was positive, when all the individual swabs of all the workers who went for that came back negative, a serology test was conducted on June 29 to ascertain who among them were Covid-positive.

The worker’s serological test then turned up positive, MOH said, indicating a likely past infection. That, combined with the negative result of the June 25 swab test, led him to be “assessed to be a recovered worker and was no longer infectious”, MOH said. 

Given MOH’s response, the employer confirmed that the ministry had reached out to him personally about the incident, but he was not satisfied because the discharge letter dated June 30 was a “form of misinformation” considering that his worker was never officially diagnosed with Covid-19. 

“I am concerned about this trend of communication failures and administrative lapses,” the employer said, adding that the relevant authorities should make the necessary changes to its processes.

He also said that if left unchecked, such incidents will cause setbacks in the country’s fight against the pandemic, as well as create undue anxiety for migrant workers. — TODAY

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