COVID quarantine procedures confusing, inconsistent: Singapore residents

·Assistant News Editor
·6-min read
An attendee receives a nose swab as part of a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) antigen rapid test before a conference held by the Institute of Policy Studies at Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre in Singapore January 25, 2021. Picture taken January 25, 2021. REUTERS/Edgar Su
An attendee receives a nose swab as part of a COVID-19 antigen rapid test before a conference held by the Institute of Policy Studies at Marina Bay Sands on 25 January 2021. (PHOTO: Reuters)

SINGAPORE — Inconsistent and sometimes conflicting information given by officials enforcing quarantine orders (QOs) has left some Singapore residents alarmed at the lack of clear communication and apparent gaps in procedures. 

Two women who were recently quarantined – one of them alongside her family and helper – told Yahoo News Singapore that they found their recent experiences confusing and frustrating. Multiple online comments by others who have served quarantine also suggest that the women's experiences are not unique. 

"The whole thing felt a shambles," said Elaine (not her real name), a 35-year-old employment pass holder with a background in healthcare. "Everyone in this new world is working as hard as they possibly can. But they (personnel overseeing quarantine orders) need better leadership and better communication."

After going for a family staycation at a hotel from 7-9 May with her husband and two children aged one and four, Elaine was notified via text on 14 May of possible exposure to a COVID case at the hotel pool. The family and their helper were then issued a seven-day quarantine order by Certis officers.

Over multiple calls with Certis officers about whether the family home was suitable for quarantine and when their swab tests were taking place, the overall impression Elaine had was of a "disorganised" effort. "The next day, someone turned up with a quarantine order and armbands (which we had to wear). They installed these little black boxes, which work in tandem with the RFID in the armbands," recalled Elaine. 

"We said we already had the Home app, where you can log your temperature three times a day and it tracks your location. It felt like we were criminals."

Who needs to be tested?

Elaine and her two children were eventually conveyed to a hospital for swab tests, but not her husband. Certis officers were "unhelpful" when she called the local security company and asked why. "When we called MOH (Ministry of Health), they were much more helpful and sent a nurse around to do swab tests."

She added, "Literally no one told us what would happen if we tested positive. We were really worried that the kids might be taken away from us if they were positive."

After multiple calls, Elaine obtained negative results for herself and her boys, while the results for her husband and helper came two to three days later. On 15 May, a day before the QO was to end, a nurse was sent to their home, after Elaine had made multiple calls to MOH to clarify her family's quarantine status, to conduct swab tests. 

Her one-year-old son was not tested for a second time as the nurse said it was not necessary. "They told us we would be fine as long as we didn’t get a positive," said Elaine, who was informed of her four-year-old son's negative test results on 17 May. 

However, the next day, there was a knock at the door in the morning. "My helper was given a document by a Certis officer, and she felt she had to sign it. They didn’t tell her what it was for. It was an extension of my one-year-old boy's QO. I called MOH, and they couldn’t give me any info," said Elaine, who noted that the family had been to multiple places since the end of their quarantine. 

Her husband took their younger son to get tested, where he was told that the extension was likely due to the fact that the boy had not been tested when the family was let out of quarantine. The boy was eventually cleared.

"The lack of communication is very frustrating. It really impacts your anxiety levels," said Elaine. 

'Communication is abysmal'

A 37-year-old lawyer who only wished to be known as Ms Wang also endured a "frustrating and confusing" experience after being issued a QO from 18-25 May, following her possible exposure to COVID-19. 

Having confined herself to her room, the mother of two was informed that Certis officers would assess her home for quarantine suitability but no one turned up. At the end of the QO, having received a negative swab result on 21 May, she interacted with her family members.

On 26 May, she received an SMS telling her to go for a swab test and that she had been issued another QO from 20-29 May. After numerous calls to the Certis hotline, Ms Wang was told that her QO would be rescinded if she were to get a negative swab result.

The following day, despite her HealthHub app displaying a negative result, a Certis officer came to issue her the new QO. She was then told by two other officers over the phone that the negative result was invalid as her quarantine had been extended and she needed another swab. 

After multiple calls, her QO was finally rescinded in the evening.

"You basically have to keep calling until you find someone helpful," said Ms Wang, who was in a "state of anxiety" for fear of possibly infecting her family members. "The communication is abysmal. I understand that they need to do this, but they need to manage the process properly. These are people’s lives."

Alluding to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's remarks last month that the government will take a more aggressive approach to testing and quarantine, she added, "The current process already seems overstretched. I think it would be so easy to improve this just by being clear. If you tell people what to expect, there won’t be so much anxiety."

As neither woman wanted to be identified, their detailed accounts and personal details could not be shared with the MOH.

MOH responds

Yahoo News Singapore asked MOH about the volume and nature of complaints it has received regarding the serving and enforcement of QOs during Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), which lasted from 16 May to 13 June. In light of PM Lee's remarks on more aggressive testing and quarantine, the ministry was also asked if it is confident that it has sufficient resources to test and quarantine potentially thousands more.

In response, an MOH spokesperson said that extensive contact tracing, including leveraging on TraceTogether and SafeEntry records, is a key strategy to cast a wide net to isolate and ring-fence any possible emerging transmissions in the community.

The spokesperson noted that "wider rings" are being drawn around cases to combat the more transmissible strains, while more people are now using TraceTogether and SafeEntry, which provides MOH with more data for contact tracing and quarantine. 

"This has led to a higher number of persons under quarantine (PUQs), resulting in delays in the testing and conveyance to quarantine facilities," said the ministry. 

"We seek the public’s understanding and patience. We will continue to improve our operating processes and improve communications between the various agencies involved in managing the quarantine process."

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