​Our Mobile Swab Teams “infiltrate” migrant worker dormitories to seek out the enemy (the virus causing Covid-19) to prevent new clusters there

“We are like army Commando units. We infiltrate territories dominated by the virus causing COVID-19, and fight the enemy (the virus) to prevent new clusters from forming there,” that is how Assistant Nurse Clinician Kenneth Lim described the mission of our Mobile Swab Teams.

“My Mobile Swab Team stint started on 9 April. At about 11am, I received a phone call from my Senior Nurse Manager to tell me that I was to lead teams of nurses to go to different dormitories for migrant workers to assist with swab taking,” said the Emergency Department staff. Before that, during the initial phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, Kenneth was deployed mainly in the pre-screening area in the ED, looking out for suspect cases with a high degree of vigilance.

“My first team consisted of 21 SGH nurses from ED as well as the Fever Screening Area (FSA) set up at the multi-storey carpark,” he said.

Take no prisoners – leaving nobody untested

Kenneth’s first mission turned out to be full-on combat with the ‘enemy’, without the chance to survey targets or the enemy territory. 

“Our first deployment was to the vacant HDB flats in Bukit Merah, housing healthy workers. They had to be tested quickly before they could be allowed to go to work, providing essential services. 

Testing essential workers rehoused at Redhill Close

“We were told to prepare for 1600 swabs!!! This compares with up to about 100 swabs we do a day in ED and FSA combined. Fortunately, we were augmented by 24 dental doctors from the National Dental Centre Singapore (NDCS). It was the largest manpower deployment for mobile teams that I was involved in. In the end we did about 1550 swabs that day,” shared Kenneth of the intense memory.

“As it was the first day of our very first deployment, we had to figure out the flow of patients, layout of the tables, etc., on the go. The weather was blazing hot, and everyone was in their full PPE (gown, N95, face shield, gloves). Some of us were working in direct sunlight, and we had to keep moving the tables to get some shade. 

Swabbing at temporary dormitory within an HDB block of flats

“At the end of the day, we took a long time to match the specimens with the manual order forms as we had only one central collection point for all the specimens. But we managed to have a bit of fun, turning it into a game of Bingo. One of us would shout the unique 4-digit number on the specimen tube, and the person with the matching order form shouts Bingo!, takes the specimen, and seals the form with the specimen,” Kenneth recalled vividly.

Becoming a combat veteran

With that first tour of duty behind him, Kenneth now has a routine in place for new missions.

“My role in the Mobile Swab Team is a bit of everything. For logistics, I will check my stores daily to see if I need to order supplies from MMD or Pharmacy. On the administrative side, I will constantly update my nurses about their roster and deployment. I also have to come up with a workflow from Registration to the actual Swab Taking and to Swab Collection station.

“We have set up swab stations in canteens, outdoor fields, parking lots and void decks. In every deployment, we will need to adjust our workflow to the physical layout and manpower capability given.

ANC Kenneth Lim at a site “office”.

Since the first deployment, nurses from other SingHealth institutions have joined the Mobile Swab Teams. “I am working with colleagues from the Singapore National Eye Centre and National Neurology Institute, supported by Dental Officers and Dental Assistants from NDCS. The number of doctors will vary according to the number of swabs to be taken,” said Kenneth.

“At some sites, we work with staff from non-healthcare institutions, including soldiers, policemen, hotel staff and even airline crew. They mainly help with ushering and registration.

A Mobile Swab Team, at their base in the FSA on Campus.

“On deployment, I move around to teach the staff at Registration how to identify the correct patient and label the specimen tube; and at Swab Collection station, how to match the specimen tubes to the order form. At the end of the day, I tally the specimen tubes to the registration forms before sending it to the laboratory.

“Once the team returns to our base at FSA at about 2pm each day, we will sort out our stores and repack for the next day's deployment.

In May, our Mobile Swab Teams started helping homes for the elderly with virus testing and training their staff to take swabs and handle samples. The national plan was to test all 30,000 residents and staff for the coronavirus. Altogether, SingHealth’s Mobile Swab Teams trained 100 staff from 22 nursing homes. 

Training staff of St Andrew Nursing Home to take swabs.

Serving the nation as SGUnited

“My baby is 9 months old. When I inform my wife about my new assignment to MST, she was quite worried, as she knew that COVID-19 is quite contagious. I reassured her that we will be working with full PPE and we will practice good hand hygiene,” said Kenneth.

“Thanks to the training I had in the ED, I am not too afraid of going to the dormitories as I know that good infection control practices can stop the spread of COVID-19.

“It is a great learning opportunity for me as a leader to lead a brand new team and learn about out-of-hospital deployment, working with different SingHealth teams and government agencies. I was also able to witness the joint effort of different ministries and organizations - the Ministry of Manpower, SAF, SPF, the hotels and airline staff. We are in this fight against COVID-19 together. We are all fighting the same enemy, just in different ways.”

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