Risk of spread by SIA worker small because of precautions

Experts say mask wearing, contact tracing and isolating those exposed will limit virus spread

Concerns about the risk of Covid-19 transmission to passengers by the Singapore Airlines steward who worked as a part-time Grab driver are valid, but mask wearing and other precautions taken, as well as the robust contact tracing system here, will mitigate the likelihood of a cluster forming.

Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, said that while there is indeed a higher risk of infection for passengers picked up by the infected Grab driver, contact tracing and isolating those exposed will limit virus spread.

"There will always be such incidents cropping up in future, and that is exactly why everyone in the community needs to remain vigilant and our testing and contact tracing efforts cannot cease," he noted.

The 48-year-old steward was detected through proactive testing arranged by the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore for air crew who had returned from overseas flights. He had travelled to the United States for work from Dec 12 to Dec 16.

After his return, he worked part-time as a Grab driver from Dec 17 to 24.

The man was tested on Dec 23 and results came back inconclusive on Dec 25. A second test on Dec 25 was also inconclusive. He remained at home until Dec 27, when he was confirmed to be infected.

The Ministry of Health (MOH) said last week that passengers who took the Grab ride are being tracked down through contact tracing.

It added that any passenger deemed to be a close contact of the man will have to be quarantined.

Associate Professor Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said: "It's hard to imagine a worse possible situation than having someone potentially exposed to viruses overseas being able to bypass quarantine, and coming into contact with a large number of people in a closed environment like a private-hire car."

But he noted that Grab had put in place precautions like mask wearing and barring passengers from sitting in the front seat.

Prof Cook said the company was also able to identify passengers who rode in the particular vehicle during that week.

Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases expert at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, called for more measures to be introduced for air crew, either by implementing a 14-day stay-home notice period, though it would impair the airline's ability to function; more frequent Covid-19 testing; or mandatory vaccination.