Having played a vital part in the early months of COVID-19, the Singapore Police Force (SPF) contact tracing operations found that fresh challenges awaited them.
By: Christabelle Lim
Since receiving the call for assistance in on 24 January 2020, the SPF had tapped on its considerable investigative expertise and skills to quickly ramp up its efforts and support the contact tracing efforts of the Ministry of Health (MOH).
With time, the team also began to build up a rigorous set of protocols and processes to better conduct contact tracing. But there was more to be done.
Closing the Information Gap
To better identify transmission sources and links to other cases in the early days of COVID-19, the officers had to conduct “backward tracing.” This involved mapping a subject’s movements two weeks before symptoms developed.
Before the implementation of TraceTogether in March 2020 and SafeEntry in April 2020, the Interview Team had relied on extensive ground enquiries, CCTV footage and phone records to conduct contact tracing.
After this data had been collected, it was shared with the Analysis Team, which would review all the information on hand in order to make considered hypotheses about subjects and transmission routes. These would then be passed on to the Interview Team, to better focus its ground efforts.
As the datasets grew, the SPF officers coded new algorithms that enabled them to process more information. “The data we received could be voluminous, reaching up to hundreds of records per patient,” explained Ms Linda Teo, Assistant Director of Analytics and Technology Development Division, Police Intelligence Department, SPF. “Hence, we had to apply certain analytical tools to crunch all the data effectively.”
With TraceTogether and SafeEntry, the MOH’s contact tracing operations now had better technological aids at their disposal. The focus of the SPF’s contact tracing operations now moved to complementing the contact tracing capabilities of the MOH and other public agencies.
With better capabilities and a larger and more experienced team of officers ready, Singapore was ready for the challenges to come. For example, from 3 to 23 December 2021, there was a spike in contact tracing efforts due to the highly infectious Omicron variant. The SPF’s contact tracing operations was able to quickly scale up its operations while coordinating with seasoned frontline Police resources. This was key to supporting the MOH’s strategy of quick detection through Antigen Rapid Tests.
An Unexpected Role Draws to a Close
As the pool of officers engaged in contact tracing grew and operations stabilised in 2022, this enabled SPF officers to gradually shift back to their core investigative duties. When the call finally came on 28 February 2023 for the SPF’s contact tracing operations to stand down, it ended 1,133 consecutive days of deployment.
During this period, more than 470 Field Team officers were activated to carry out ground enquiries and review CCTV footage. More than 140 officers from the Interview Team were mobilised, and more than 40 officers on the Analysis Team worked on the data for contact tracing. The Command Centre was manned for every one of the 1,133 days, by a total of more than 150 rostered officers. Overall, close to 840 personnel were involved in the SPF’s contact tracing operations.
“Playing this role in the whole-of-government fight against COVID-19 was something that we never expected to take on,” recalled Superintendent Sherman Teo, one of the pioneer officers in the SPF’s Command Centre for contact tracing operations. “But we knew we had to do it.”
Read Part 1 here.