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SINGAPORE, May 3 — For more than five hours today, Foo Say Hin and his wife, who are 84 and 78 respectively, waited to receive their Covid-19 swab test at a screening centre at the former Da Qiao Primary School at Ang Mo Kio.
They were among the hundreds of people who showed up at Covid-19 screening centres on the first day of free swab testing for those who have been exposed to the confirmed cases from the Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) cluster.
These members of the public would have received a text message from the Ministry of Health, informing them that they had recently been at a certain public place at the same time as a confirmed case from the TTSH cluster, and advising them to get tested for Covid-19.
The message states that they can get tested for free between May 3 and 16, and that they can do so either by booking an appointment at any one of the many polyclinics and general practitioner clinics that offer Swab and Send Home (Sash) services, or by walking into one of four regional screening centres.
These are in Ang Mo Kio, Bishan, Pasir Ris and Jurong East.
When Mr and Mrs Foo showed up at the Ang Mo Kio screening centre, they found themselves queuing with many others who were there for different reasons, such as construction workers who were on rostered routine testing and renovation contractors who needed to be swabbed before entering their work sites.
But they were determined to get tested on Monday, and so they waited from around 9am until around 2pm for their swabs.
Mr Foo, who has not received the Covid-19 vaccination due to a health condition, recently resigned from his job at the McDonald’s outlet at CompassOne shopping mall, where his possible exposure was detected. Both he and his wife received the text messages from the Government over the weekend encouraging them to get tested.
When asked why they had waited for hours under the hot sun, unlike many others who had given up and left, Mrs Foo said their advanced age and ailing health meant they were vulnerable to Covid-19.
“Because the Government said we were possibly exposed to the TTSH (cases), so we were scared (of the virus) and wanted to make sure,” she said, adding that the centre’s staff members had offered them seats during their wait because of their old age.
One of the Ang Mo Kio screening centre’s staff members told TODAY they had been unprepared for the crowds: “We did not expect so many people today.”
The situations were similar at two of the other centres — the ones in Bishan and Pasir Ris. Only the one in Jurong East was not crowded when TODAY visited on Monday afternoon.
The situation was especially dire at Ang Mo Kio, where queues snaked from the centre’s entrance to the void decks of Housing and Development Board flats around 200m away.
When people showed up at the centres, they were given stickers that stated they were being tested because of the TTSH cases. After a while, the centre also started giving people timeslots for their tests.
“This was an improvised solution,” one of the staff members who was managing the queues told TODAY on condition of anonymity. “It was a very difficult day today — people were angry because they were told that this was a walk-in test and were not expecting to wait.”
It was also near impossible to ask people in the queues to keep a 1m safe-distancing gap between each other, as many bunched up in the shade provided by trees.
Another of the centre’s staff member said: “We could only tell people that we are very sorry and hope they would understand that we had to do our jobs too.”
At around midday in Ang Mo Kio, the centre stopped giving out stickers and the staff members began turning people away, telling them to return another day, or head to another screening centre. A number of people TODAY spoke to did just that.
Engineer Jessica Lim, 29, said she had visited the Ang Mo Kio centre at 11am, only to be told that it was full. She then decided to head to the one in Bishan, located at the site of the former Bishan Park Secondary School.
There, she was told she could be waiting a few more hours before her turn.
“At Ang Mo Kio, they were telling people not to wait. I met people who had come from the Pasir Ris side in the morning, also saying it was very bad there,” said Lim, who was possibly exposed to a confirmed Covid-19 case at AMK Hub.
Some of the people in the queues said that the public health preparedness clinics (PHPC) that they had visited earlier had told them to go to the screening centres instead.
ITE student Mohammed Danial Razali, 18, said he had gone to a PHPC clinic in the morning to be tested, only to be told there that the wait would be more than three hours long, and workers at the clinic advised him to head to one of the regional screening centres.
“I think I will likely be waiting another one or two hours here for my turn,” said Mr Danial, who was queuing at the screening centre in Bishan.
Alex Pak, 34, a healthcare services vendor who works at TTSH, said he too had tried to call a PHPC but was advised to go to one of the regional screening centres.
“I was waiting since morning,” he said, when he finally came out from the testing centre after three hours of queuing. Pak added that he wanted to be tested on Monday since it was a day off for him.
Judy Tan, 70, a homemaker, suggested that some priority system be given for older people as many had to stand for hours in the hot sun.
She and her husband had been possibly exposed to a case at AMK Hub and wanted to be tested out of caution.
Upon seeing the queues and being told to come back another day, she told TODAY she was having second thoughts about being tested now.
Tan said: “I think the staff (at the screening centre) are doing their best, but I don’t know if I will try coming back to queue again at 8am tomorrow.”
By the afternoon, the queues had begun to shorten as centre’s staff members turned newcomers away and reminded them that they had several more days to be tested.
TODAY has reached out to the Ministry of Health for comment. — TODAY