By April 2020, the COVID-19 situation in worker dormitories was getting out of control. SGH staff found themselves unexpectedly taking the fight outside of hospital walls.

Within hours of activation, SGH and campus colleagues found themselves conducting mass swabbing of workers providing essential services. The operation eventually lasted 111 days at different locations, with more than 50,000 swabs performed over 162 deployments. This is the account of Dr Lim Chin Siah, Consultant, Emergency Medicine – he led the launch of the mobile swab operations - of the very first foray.

Swabbing thousands

“At that time, we thought it was a one-off thing for the migrant workers. We knew it was going to be a large number but didn’t know how it would unfold. The largest number swabbed at a single time then was just a few hundred. 

That Easter Sunday morning, while walking to the Redhill site, I saw cranes lifting mattresses through the windows of the empty HDB flats. These workers had been relocated at short notice. There was apprehension all around. 

The SAF had set up a tent for us. They were registering the workers for us, getting them ready to be tested. All we had to do was swab and label the specimens, and send them off to the lab. 

It was a colossal operation, and the choke point was at registration, which was done manually. Each swab took just a few minutes. After the swab, there were again long queues, this time to collect care packs containing SIM cards. So, the SAF had to deploy manpower over there, too – they were running all over the place. 

Thanks to NDCS, 40 dentists and nurses came to our aid, and we managed more than 1,500 swabs over six hours that day. That record became the benchmark. 

In the midst of the sweltering heat as the swabbers worked outdoors in full personal protective equipment (PPE) – disposable gowns, gloves, N95 masks and goggles – SGH and SingHealth leaders turned up offering support, including a surprise bubble tea treat. CEO Kenneth Kwek gave me $500 cash to buy drinks. After paying for them, I had a few hundred dollars left. ‘How do I return this to CEO?’ I wondered, naively thinking that the swabbing was going to last only a few days.”

Editor’s Note:

In addition to the mobile swabbing operations, SGH Campus also deployed Mobile Medical Teams 7 days a week from April to end July 2020 to care for quarantined workers. At the height of external operations, SGH Campus ran Mobile Medical Teams at eight workers’ dormitories, two hotels repurposed to Swab Isolation Facilities, and the 3,200-bed Community Care Facility (CCF) at Singapore Expo, and CCF at D’Resort hotel. For eight weeks from May 2020, SGH Campus also sent out Mobile Phlebotomy Teams to the dormitories to collect specimens for serology tests. 

Excerpt is from “Singapore General Hospital Purpose with Passion – Our COVID-19 Stories” book. Read more stories from the book here.