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Coronavirus: Singapore conducts mass testing at air and sea ports after more unlinked cases; Laos records first death

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 10/5/2021 Dewey Sim and Agencies
a group of people standing around each other: Members of a Chinese medical expert team visit a Covid-19 sampling site in Vientiane, Laos, on Friday. Photo: Chinese medical expert team via Xinhua © XINHUA Members of a Chinese medical expert team visit a Covid-19 sampling site in Vientiane, Laos, on Friday. Photo: Chinese medical expert team via Xinhua

Singapore on Monday began a mass testing exercise involving 9,000 workers at Changi Airport and closed off a section of Terminal 3, shoring up its defences against an increase in unlinked Covid-19 cases, including some showing the B16172 variant first discovered in India.

Singapore, which last weekend imposed more restrictions on arrivals of foreign workers and local gatherings, reported 13 untraceable virus cases in the week ending Sunday, compared to 10 the week before. A continued rise in such cases could delay the launch of the Hong Kong-Singapore travel bubble, scheduled to begin on May 26 provided the seven-day rolling average of daily unlinked local cases is less than five in both cities.

The figure in Hong Kong is currently 0.14 and 1.86 in Singapore as of Sunday. The city state reported three new locally transmitted infections on Monday afternoon. This brings May's total to 65, compared to 55 cases logged in April and just nine in March. There have been more than 61,000 cases in Singapore since the start of the pandemic.

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A press release from the health ministry on Sunday showed there were 11 ongoing infection clusters being monitored by authorities. These include the airport cluster, where eight workers based in either Terminal 1 or Terminal 3 tested positive in recent days; a cluster that began last month at its port, where four additional workers test positive this month; and a cluster of 43 cases linked to the public Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

The health ministry added that four of the new cases on Sunday had tested preliminary positive for the B1617 variant, first identified in India and thought to be more transmissible, and two were staff at the airport.

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Transport minister Ong Ye Kung, who will become the health minister later this week as part of a cabinet reshuffle, expressed concern about the growing port cluster.

"A lot is at stake if our seaport and airport cannot function," he said in a Facebook post. "One clear implication is our supply lines, and future survival of Changi Airport. We need to protect our frontliners in order to protect the rest of Singapore."

According to authorities, at least six of the eight staff at the airport caught the virus despite being fully vaccinated. Ong noted that more than 95 per cent of higher-risk port workers have received vaccinations, calling for the rest of the eligible workers to be vaccinated.

In addition to the mass testing of airport staff, authorities have asked visitors to the public areas of the airport's Terminal 3 to be swabbed. Authorities will also test 4,000 port workers at Pasir Panjang Terminal, while planning to test some 12,000 hospital staff progressively.

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There will be tighter measures at the port, where higher-risk workers exposed to seafarers and travellers will be segregated from other staff. This will include separate toilets and frontline workers at the air and sea ports being tested weekly instead of fortnightly.

Schools have not been spared from the latest rise in cases, with an 18-year-old student testing positive last week, resulting in mass testing of some 2,200 students, staff, vendors and visitors.

For now, Singapore residents are not allowed to gather in groups of more than five. More workers have been told to work from home, and some facilities such as gyms and fitness studios have been told to suspend operations or specific classes. These restrictions will last until the end of the month.

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Laos reports first death as cases rise in Vietnam, Thailand

A Vietnamese woman died from Covid-19 in Laos on Sunday, according to state-run media, marking the country's first death from the disease.

Reclusive, landlocked Laos had appeared to escape the brunt of the pandemic in 2020, but a community outbreak uncovered last month has sent the number of cases soaring - from 49 in early April to 1,302 in less than a month.

Authorities confirmed on Sunday that a 53-year-old Vietnamese woman had died from Covid-19, according to state-run news outlet Vientiane Times - the first fatality from the disease recorded in the country.

The woman worked at a karaoke club in the capital Vientiane and had underlying health issues - such as diabetes - which meant her condition deteriorated quickly, said the report.

Vietnamese state-run media had earlier in the day reported that Vietnam's ministry of health conducted a "tele-health consultation" with the Vientiane hospital, but the patient died at 1am.

The community outbreak in mid-April was traced to a Laotian national who came into contact with Thais, as well as to workers returning from neighbouring Thailand - which is currently undergoing its third wave.

Vientiane promptly went into a snap lockdown, barring residents from leaving their homes except for essentials and medical help, and travel was prohibited between the capital and other provinces.

Impoverished Laos is one of the most underdeveloped countries in Southeast Asia, and experts say its low official Covid-19 toll in 2020 was probably due to a dearth of testing.

Sydney extends measures for week on untraceable case

Australia's New South Wales (NSW) state reported zero cases for a fourth straight day on Monday, but concerns about new infections remained as the missing link in a case that has reinstated restrictions continued to elude officials.

Australia's most populous state on Sunday extended social distancing curbs in Sydney by a week after authorities could not find a transmission path between an infected overseas traveller and a resident in his 50s who tested positive last week.

More than 5.3 million people living in and around Sydney, Australia's biggest metropolitan area, have been ordered to wear masks on public transport and at indoor venues, while house gatherings are limited to 20 guests until May 17.

NSW opened a mass vaccination hub in Sydney aiming to administer up to 30,000 vaccines every week to ramp up a national vaccination programme that has missed its initial dosage targets.

With just over 29,900 Covid-19 cases and 910 deaths, Australia has fared much better than many other developed countries but its countrywide immunisation drive has hit major roadblocks.

More than 2.65 million total vaccine doses have been administered as of Saturday, far short of the 4 million pledged by the end of March.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Bloomberg

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