OFFICIALS in Singapore are staying one step ahead of the coronavirus by using a crack team of detectives to track down those in contact with infected patients – case by case.
The labour-intensive strategy which combines the use of CCTV footage, police investigation and a mobile app has enabled the government to trace those carrying the deadly bug and have them tested before any symptoms have been detected.
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The country has developed a new app which uses Bluetooth signals to trace who a person may have come into contact withCredit: AFP or licensors
The country, one of the first to be hit with the virus, currently has no recorded deaths with 345 cases, while 124 of its residents have already made a full recovery.
Initially, Singapore had the highest number of cases outside of China but with carriers being tracked down quickly, an immediate lockdown and even a government WhatsApp group to keep false information to a minimum, figures show the system is bucking the trend.
With its team of specialist ‘contact tracers’ the health ministry has so far been able to trace 6,000 potential super spreaders by tracking their movements through a digital signature.
This could be through bank transactions or the use of an ATM and for many, the first indication that they had come into contact with coronavirus is a phone call from the government.
The government has also introduced a mobile app using Bluetooth technology in collaboration with the Ministry of Health which informs users if they have had close contacts to confirmed coronavirus cases.
The TraceTogether app works by exchanging short-distance Bluetooth signals between phones to detect other users in close proximity, two meters apart, or up to five meters, for 30 minutes.
Records of these encounters will be stored locally in the users’ phones and will not be sent to the authorities unless contacted by the Health Ministry.
Singapore’s use of the system during this crisis was even praised by Harvard epidemiologists in early February, who described it as a “gold standard of near-perfect detection”.
‘IT WAS SURREAL’
British yoga teacher, Melissa, says that she was shocked to receive a call from an officer at the Singapore health ministry to tell her that she must go into quarantine after a recent taxi journey.
The following day she claims she was visited by three doctors wearing surgical masks and who gave her a quarantine contract stating that she must not leave the house or she would receive a fine and a jail sentence.
She told the BBC: “It was surreal.
“They asked ‘were you in a taxi at 18.47 on Wednesday?’ It was very precise. I guess I panicked a bit, I couldn’t think straight.
“It was a bit like out of a film, they gave me a contract, a quarantine order, it says you cannot go outside your home otherwise it’s a fine and jail time.
“It is a legal document.
“They make it clear you can’t leave the house and I knew I wouldn’t break it. I know that I live in a place where you do what you’re told.”
A team of contact tracers work to track down infected patients and those who they pay have passed on the virus tooCredit: EPA
After looking at her taxi app, she recalled that she had taken a six-minute journey but was not told if it was a passenger or the driver that was carrying that had put her at risk.
With a population of 5.8 million, the country is densely populated meaning one infected person left to their own devices could quickly cause a huge outbreak.
Conceicao Edwin Phillips, 31, is on the front line tracing those unaware that they are now contributing to the spread of the bug that has now killed thousands worldwide.
The employee at the Singapore General Hospital told the New York Times: “We have to drop everything, scramble and figure out where these patients have been.
“Because once they can remember who they sat down with for a meal, that would give us a rough estimate of the number of people in their surroundings, and they can usually remember what they did.
His team work through the night to interview patients about their travel history behind a glass screen before passing on to the information to the health ministry and detective team.
The police and Health Ministry hold daily teleconferences to exchange information about the patient with as many as 100 officers working on a case at time.
The country has been praised for its rapid response to the outbreakCredit: AFP or licensors
Singapore’s Infectious Diseases Act also makes it illegal for anyone to refuse co-operation with the police with those who refused being fined £5,800 and up to prison for six months.
After the outbreak first began in Wuhan, China, back in January, the country was quick to respond with an immediate lockdown, a move praised by the World Health Organisation.
Officials were able to trace how the virus entered the country via a group of Chinese tourists at the beginning of the year.
The group were unaware that they had unleashed the deadly bug into the community after visiting a Chinese medicine shop and would go onto infect a local tour guide and the saleswomen who served them.
Nine people became infected, including the saleswoman’s husband, her six-month-old baby and their Indonesian domestic helper as well as two other staff members.
The virus has been compared to the outbreak of SARS that saw 238 confirmed cases and killed 33 across Singapore between 2002 and 2004.
Doctor Leong Hoe Nam, a specialist in infectious diseases from Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, said in a recent interview that SARS had actually benefited the country.
The doctor, who himself was infected with SARS at the time, told news site PRI: “SARS turned out to be a blessing for Singapore.
“We realized how infectious diseases spread and how we have to be on top of the curve, in terms of quarantining and surveillance, and being aware and having the diagnostic kits, as well as the health care workers all ready.
“That SARS experience has prepared us for the current epidemic.
“If you look at it, Singapore is emerging out of this epidemic earlier than expected.
“We have controlled most cases and all of this comes from the roots from SARS.
“We actually see the government being proactive. We actually see the people being cooperative with the government.”
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Unlike the US and much of Europe, Singapore started contact tracing early to stay ahead of community spread.
In the UK the death toll currently lies at 145 with 3269 confirmed case with the PM yesterday urging the UK to behave responsibly to beat the bug in 12 weeks.
Italy has so far been hit the worst outside of China with over 41,000 cases and over 3,400 deaths.
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