- Singapore has a strict protocol for tracking cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
- The system relies on police, surveillance footage, ATM records, and a dedicated team of contact tracers, who map out where patients went in the days and weeks before they were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.
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Anyone who catches COVID-19 in Singapore can expect to answer a lot of questions about where they have been, and who they have met along the way.
If they don’t comply, people can be put in jail for months or subject to thousands of dollars in fines. That is how seriously the southeast Asian city-state of 6 million takes its disease contact tracing.
“Contact tracing teams have been working round the clock” for more than 13 hours a day, tracing back the steps of anyone who’s contracted the novel coronavirus, a Singapore Ministry of Health spokesperson told Business Insider.
So far, the ministry has picked up 117 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and quarantined more than three thousand others, to help stop the spread of the virus. Here’s how the tightly-controlled system works.
The novel coronavirus spreads rapidly when people are in close contact with infected patients. But if you can keep COVID-19 contained, the spread stops.
That’s what’s happened in China, and the strategy seems to be working well in Singapore too.
“We don’t even talk about containment for seasonal flu – it’s just not possible,” World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva on Tuesday. “But it is possible for COVID-19. We don’t do contact tracing for seasonal flu – but countries should do it for COVID-19, because it will prevent infections and save lives.”
The Ministry of Health in Singapore employs a dedicated team of 140 contact tracers, who work in shifts from 8:30 in the morning until 10 at night every day of the week.
Anyone in Singapore who’s diagnosed with COVID-19 will be subject to very detailed interviews about where they have been and who they have seen.
“Think of what has happened in the last five days,” Dr. Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious disease specialist in Singapore, recently told The World. “What did you do? Where did you go? Who did you meet?”
These are the kinds of questions that Singapore health workers aim to answer when they interview patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19.
But disease investigators in Singapore don’t rely solely on memories. Tracers can also tap the police for help and run back surveillance footage from local businesses.
“They make use of all resources, including the police,” Nam said. “If you realise it, everywhere we go, we do leave a digital signature, be it from the cash we draw, or the use of the ATM card or the credit card. It leaves digital signatures all around. Now with all this information, we actually try to track and find out where the person has gone. “
As the contact tracers conduct their interviews, they’re also listening for clues about where the person might’ve picked up their infection.
Though it’s possible for the novel coronavirus to get passed around on hard surfaces, by far the most common source of transmission is through respiratory droplets spread by person to person contact.
That’s why people who are sick are encouraged to isolate themselves and wear a mask when around others. A safe distance of 6 feet is recommended.
At the hospital, tracers sketch out what’s called an activity map, which outlines all the places the sick person went in the 14 days before they started showing symptoms.
This helps better determine where the person might’ve picked up their infection.
COVID-19 patients are also asked to think back to the places they went and people they touched after they initially started showing symptoms, such as a dry cough, or a fever, so anyone who was in the area can be alerted that they might’ve caught the bug.
This is also how the Ministry of Health has been able to better determine which cases in the country are “linked” to one another.
The contact tracing team’s goal is to have a complete picture of where the patient has been over the past two weeks within 24 hours of a confirmed illness.
Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the Ministry of Health has used this strategy to quarantine at least 3,291 people, who all had some contact with at least one of the city-state’s 117 confirmed COVID-19 patients, when they might’ve been symptomatic.
Most people have finished their quarantines by now, but 381 were still under lockdown as of March 5, the ministry said.
Family members, colleagues, and travel companions are all commonly subject to quarantining. If they develop any COVID-19 symptoms during their quarantines, the close contacts move into hospital isolation.
Others who didn’t have quite the same level of intimate contact with a patient, like fellow shoppers, may just get phone calls for the next 14 days from the government.
They’re asked to keep a close watch on their own health, and if they develop symptoms, put on a mask and go see a doctor.
Lying to a contact tracer, or withholding information about where you’ve been, is against the law in Singapore.
A Chinese couple was charged with lying to health authorities about where they’d been before and during one quarantine in February. They could serve up to 6 months in jail, have to pay a fine as large as $US10,000, or both.
“MOH [Ministry of Health] was able to establish their true movements through detailed investigations,” the ministry said in a release.
In February, Singapore set aside $US800 million to combat the coronavirus outbreak amid fears it could prompt a recession.
Singapore’s deputy prime minister said the government is doing everything in its power to “slow down the spread of the virus,”Bloomberg reported.
Part of the reason that Singapore is so proactive about tracking down every single COVID-19 case is because the country was hard-hit by the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003.
So far, no one in Singapore has died from COVID-19.
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