SINGAPORE: The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is making between 1,000 to 2,000 calls a day to help contact trace and check compliance with stay-home notices as the Government ramps up measures to tackle COVID-19.

The daily operation, which started on Jan 28 with calls to travellers from Hubei province, involves more than 1,300 servicemen and non-uniformed personnel.

SAF contact tracers work with the Ministry of Health (MOH) to fill gaps in the activity maps of confirmed or suspected cases.

They call close contacts of these cases, ask questions about the nature of their interactions and whether they visited certain locations, then decide whether to issue quarantine orders.

For stay-home notice compliance checks, SAF personnel call those who have been unresponsive to text messages sent by the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA), to determine if they are at home and reasons for not responding.

SAF will collate these responses and send them to ICA, while those who remain uncontactable will be referred to the authority for follow-up action.

To support contact tracing efforts, Defence Science and Technology Agency engineers have also developed tools to automate the extraction and fusion of data for analysis.

“Ministry of Defence (MINDEF)/SAF is also working closely with DSTA to tap on analytics to uncover possible links between cases and discover potential new clusters,” the ministry said on Friday (Apr 3).

Brigadier-General Lee Yi-Jin says Singapore’s people and way of life remain vulnerable as long as the virus isn’t contained. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

This comes as the Government announced sweeping new measures on Friday to curb the outbreak amid a rising number of local and unlinked cases. These include urging people to stay at home and closing schools and most workplaces.

“We are at a critical juncture in this fight against COVID-19,” Commander 6th Singapore Division Brigadier-General (BG) Lee Yi-Jin, who oversees the SAF’s contact tracing operations, said on Friday.

“When MOH asked us for our support, we were very clear that this is something that we have to do, step up and step forward.”

CONTACT TRACING

SAF contact tracers work nine-hour shifts and get assigned a number of cases each day based on Singapore’s case tally for the day. Their workload also depends on how many people a confirmed case could have infected.

A big part of their job is to assess whether a close contact of a confirmed case needs to be quarantined. Personnel are trained to ask questions about the physical distance, duration and nature of the interaction.

Those who are issued a quarantine order over the phone must go home immediately. A physical copy of the order will be issued at a later date.

READ: Wuhan coronavirus: 1,500 SAF personnel packing 5.2m masks in 24-hour operation

“Some are quite shocked, but the ones I encountered are quite happy to leave work immediately,” said Lance Corporal Muhammad Audi Ahmad, 22, a full-time national serviceman (NSF) who is part of the contact tracing team.

“Some people try to rationalise their opinion, saying I shouldn’t get quarantined and stuff like that. We try our best to explain why the decision was made as per MOH guidelines, and slowly they will comply accordingly.”

SAF contact tracers also study the activity maps of confirmed cases issued by hospitals, figure out where the patient had been in the two days before hospitalisation, and call the patient or his close contacts if more information is needed.

Contact tracing at Mandai Hill Camp (3)

SAF personnel conducting contact tracing at Mandai Hill Camp. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

For instance, a patient declaring he took one-and-a-half hours to get to a clinic from his home via taxi would raise questions.

“We would ask him to give us the exact timings and what he was doing right before and after, to ensure we are able to trace correctly all the places has been to and who he has met,” said Ms Tiffany Chua, a MINDEF non-uniformed officer who is helping out with contact tracing.

While issuing quarantine orders is a big responsibility, the 25-year-old said she has gained confidence from observing MOH contact tracers during training.

“Four of us (from my department) volunteered for it because we thought it was very meaningful work, and we wanted to play a part in helping the nation’s efforts,” she added.

CHECKING STAY-HOME COMPLIANCE

Also playing their part are SAF servicemen who ensure people comply with stay-home notices. The Government had announced in March that anyone entering the country will be issued a 14-day stay-home notice to reduce the risk of local transmission.

Personnel on this job, who work in teams of six, used to do five-hour shifts and make 50 to 100 calls a day. But the workload has gone up to nine-hour shifts making more than 200 calls a day, says NSF Third Sergeant (3SG) Reuben George Pharez, 22.

Contact tracing at Mandai Hill Camp (1)

MINDEF non-uniformed officers conducting contact tracing at Mandai Hill Camp (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

3SG Pharez said the SAF personnel will call individuals who have been unresponsive to ICA’s text messages. If they pick up, they will need use an application to prove they are home, and give reasons why they had not responded before.

Common reasons for missing the text messages, 3SG Pharez said, include not checking their phones because they were sleeping or cooking.

SAF personnel will call up to five times before declaring someone uncontactable, with 3SG Pharez saying two out of 10 people a day fall in this group.

Some individuals are also uncooperative when called, 3SG Pharez said, insisting that they are at home because the number dialled is a landline, although landlines can be redirected to mobile phones too.

“We try to be patient with them, we flag it out that they are uncooperative, and ICA manages them,” he said. “We try not to interact with them as much.”

Another difficulty, these personnel said, is when people doubt their authority, especially as they don’t identify as being from SAF, but acting on behalf of the MOH or ICA. In this case, the personnel said they will give respective hotlines for verification.

Contact tracing at Mandai Hill Camp (2)

The SAF has three contact tracing centres and can scale it up if need be. (Photo: Marcus Mark Ramos)

Still, they said the job is rewarding as most people are understanding and thankful for their work.

“They appreciate the fact that you’re calling them to check on them,” 3SG Pharez said. “They mention that is heartwarming to know that the public is also willingly cooperating to fight the virus.”

While BG Lee said the fight against COVID-19 is “far from over”, he believes his charges have been adapting to different tasks and are fully focused on the mission.

“That ultimately gives me the biggest confidence and conviction that we’re going to get through this together,” he added.

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