Amid threat of more virulent strains, Singapore's Changi Airport tightens Covid-19 measures with zoning, movement curbs

CAG’s investigations found that 23 of Covid-19-positive airport workers had worked in higher-risk areas that required direct contact with arrival and transfer passengers. These areas are now demarcated as Zone 1. — TODAY pic
CAG’s investigations found that 23 of Covid-19-positive airport workers had worked in higher-risk areas that required direct contact with arrival and transfer passengers. These areas are now demarcated as Zone 1. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, May 24 — From today, Changi Airport is rolling out movement measures that will fundamentally change how the airport typically operates, with strict rules to separate arriving and departing travellers, as well as to separate workers handling these passengers into various zones.

The new measures are targeted to be fully in place by June 13. This came after an investigation into the Changi Airport Covid-19 cluster revealed that the new B1617 variant has a risk of spreading even via transient interactions — that is, brief contact could lead to a transmission of the coronavirus.

Lee Seow Hiang, chief executive officer of Changi Airport Group (CAG), said at a media conference on Monday at Jewel, the retail and leisure complex on the airport grounds: “Everyone at Changi Airport was working with (existing) safety protocols and they have served us well in the last 15 months.

“But something changed with this B1617 variant and shifted the risk profile for us. It penetrated our defences and caused the community outbreak We now know clearly where the primary zone of infection was and so, together with our partners, we have been busy rethinking, reinventing our operational processes.”

The Changi Airport cluster is the largest active Covid-19 cluster in Singapore with more than 100 people infected so far, including 43 airport workers and more than 60 members of the public.

What the investigations found so far

CAG’s investigations found that 23 of the infected airport workers had worked in higher-risk areas that required direct contact with arrival and transfer passengers.

These areas include the arrival gates in the terminals, immigration and the baggage claim hall, which CAG is now demarcating as “Zone 1”.

However, there were also viral transmissions detected at the central transit area of the terminals, which is the area right after entering the transit terminal and includes many of the retail shops and food-and-beverage outlets mostly meant for departing travellers, who are of a lower risk.

Seven infected airport staff members worked in this area — now named “Zone 2” — especially at a point in Terminal 3 of Changi Airport adjacent to Zone 1.

Lee said that investigations showed there was a mingling of the staff members who worked in these two zones, before the new zonal system was announced.

And while there were no cases of airport workers who were infected throughout other publicly accessible areas for non-travellers — which are the areas now named “Zone 3” —  the exception was in the staff canteen at the basement of Terminal 3, which the public and non-transit airport workers could also use.

CAG established that 14 of the 23 infected airport workers had handled arrival passengers and visited the canteen, potentially becoming vectors of transmission.

Many cases involving members of the public were also linked to this canteen.

Based on the data, including the results of swabbing operations of all airport workers so far, CAG found that it was in Zone 1 that the primary infections took place. The infections in Zones 2 and 3 were mainly secondary infections, which means that these cases probably got the virus from someone who had been infected while in Zone 1.

Tighter measures by June 13

Following the analysis of the Changi Airport outbreak, CAG will be implementing stringent movement control measures within and between the various zones with an aim to tackle any chances of primary infections at Zone 1, the highest-risk area, Mr Lee said.

“In the past, when we segregated (arriving passengers from other people), it was in the belief that these are transient movements and that the risk is much lower. But with this B1617 variant, we are taking a step up in vigilance — that even transient interactions are risky.”

Previously, each terminal was treated as a single zone, with only the arriving passengers from “very high Covid-19 risk” countries having separate arrival processes from disembarkation to transportation to their testing and quarantine facilities.

By June 13, new protocols will be in place in Terminals 1 and 3, which are the only terminals now operating, to ringfence the zones that serve passengers:

All arriving passengers are to be separated from departing travellers. In other words, travellers from Zone 1 will not be allowed to enter Zones 2 or 3

Strict access controls will be imposed between zones, so no staff member from Zone 1 can mingle with another from other zones

All workers in Zone 1 must wear personal protective equipment (PPE) at all times, including gowns, gloves and face shields over their face masks.

There will be 14 dedicated rest areas and toilet facilities for Zone 1 staff members, along with stations to safely remove or don the PPE, so that workers can rest and eat their meals without wearing them

More audits and spot checks will be carried out for wearing PPE

Only fully vaccinated staff members will be rostered for duty in Zone 1

The rostered routine testing cycle for Zone 1 workers will be shortened, with one polymerase chain reaction test every seven days and one antigen rapid test every three days.

There are around 14,000 people who work at Changi Airport today. With these new zones, there will be around 4,400 workers in Zone 1, 2,000 workers in Zone 2, and 7,600 workers in Zone 3. Staff members who have been assigned their zones will not be rotated around to other zones.

Mr Jayson Goh, managing director of CAG’s airport operations management, said that CAG will also be working towards conducting daily non-invasive tests for all airport workers in Zone 1, with results available minutes after their tests. 

In addition, passengers from “very high-risk countries” will be escorted to remote gates in Terminal 2 for immigration clearance and then transported by bus to their quarantine facilities without going through the other terminals.

Not a ‘trivial’ change

During the media conference, Lee was asked why CAG is now treating transient contact as a risk even though the health authorities have so far mainly warned about the risks of prolonged exposure to infected cases.

He replied that CAG is only doing so now with the benefit of the insights that it was able to get from its investigation.

“Because this is not a trivial change. It is a fundamental change, segmenting the entire zone for thousands of people working — there were no canteens, no food courts, no rest areas in this zone Now, we have to take a more ‘abundance of caution’ approach, and we have to change the protocol.” 

Reporters also asked whether these measures could have been implemented sooner, since the B1617 variant has been around for some time, and whether the latest set of measures are akin to shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Lee said that the latest measures are in recognition of the “deeper understanding” of the B1617 variant and it was only in early May that the possibility of aerosol-based transmission emerged.

“This outbreak has hit us at the deepest core of who we are and what we are, and I want to assure Singaporeans that everyone in this community is making sure that we will learn the lessons as quickly as we can,” he added.

“We will tighten all the gaps and make sure that this place remains a home for Singaporeans and we are confident that with this plan, we can make that happen.” — TODAY

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