SINGAPORE — Personnel administering swab tests for COVID-19 have not been specially trained to deal with persons with special needs, said Parliamentary Secretary of Health Rahayu Mahzam on Wednesday (9 June) in response to complaints about alleged mishandling of swab tests.
In a Facebook post, Rahayu alluded to feedback from Cindy Chee and Amylia Koh and said, "We understand their grievance and it is indeed unfortunate that they had to go through such an experience. We recognise that the swab process and the quarantine can be more challenging for persons with special needs as they may not be comfortable with unfamiliar people or environment."
Rahayu added, "My colleagues at MOH will work to improve on our processes."
Complaints went viral
Facebook posts by Chee, 45, and Koh, 26, about the difficult swabbing experiences of their loved ones with special needs have gone viral in the past week.
Chee wrote that her autistic son Matthew, a student at Rainbow Centre Yishun Park School, was not exempted from mandatory swabbing despite her concerns and those of his teachers. The testers only agreed to her request for exemption after the 18-year-old began hitting the wall out of distress and tried to drag Chee out of the swabbing tent.
In a journal entry on the same day, Matthew recalled a room with many covered heads and faces. "They looked so scary to me. They wanted to put (a) stick in my throat... I (wanted) to leave the room."
Chee noted that it takes time to teach new routines, especially if the personnel involved are uncomfortable in dealing with someone with autism. Matthew needed six months before he would wear a mask and accept that his masked mother and teachers were not "bad people".
She added, "Now when he hears about swabbing, he will go 'no, no, no' and shake his head vigorously."
Caregiver 'frustrated' by 'horrifying' experience
Special education teacher Amylia Koh wrote that her 34-year-old brother was issued a quarantine order last Thursday after he attended a session at MINDSville@Napiri, which caters to clients with intellectual disabilities or Down Syndrome. Following an outbreak of COVID-19 at the adult disability home, some 33 cases have been linked to the cluster as of Tuesday.
"The utter lack of awareness of the profiles of the clients of MINDSville was shocking and disappointing," said Koh, who was not allowed to board a shuttle bus to a government quarantine facility with her brother on 4 June, as she was not listed as a caregiver.
Koh said that she had repeatedly highlighted her brother's condition to various relevant personnel with terms like “mentally incapacitated” and “intellectual disability”, but "none of them seemed to register in the minds of the CISCO Officer on site and MOH Officers on the phone." Following discussions, she was eventually allowed to go to the facility.
Instructed to watch from a distance as her brother was swabbed, Koh witnessed the "agitation, discomfort, and frustration" of her brother, who was unable to comprehend what was happening. "All the swabbers took turns trying to swab my brother, who became increasingly frustrated and was on the brink of an aggressive meltdown."
After 30 minutes, she was allowed to step in and assist the swabbers. "I can only imagine how stressful and traumatic it must have been for the MINDSville clients who were accompanied by their ageing parents during the QO."
Slamming the "lukewarm, uncaring, (dis)compassionate responses" of the team on site, Koh pointed out that her brother could have potentially injured or infected the swabbers had he become aggressive and lashed out. In addition, he could also have been injured during the swabbing process.
"Had your team prepared yourselves to manage and understand the profile of the clients from MINDSville, this could have been avoided."
As of Wednesday afternoon, Koh's post has been shared more than 1,600 times.
Acting on feedback received
Rahayu, who is also a Member of Parliament for Jurong, said that the Ministry of Health is looking into engaging relevant professionals, as well as volunteers from the National Council of Social Service, who are trained to work with persons with special needs. Processes and arrangements will also be reviewed to make them more inclusive for persons with special needs.
Koh had written that her requests for her brother to be administered alternative tests such as the provisionally approved breathalyser test, but they were turned down. Rahayu said the effectiveness of alternative tests would be studied, while "we have reminded Certis, our agent for quarantine orders, to be mindful and exercise compassion when dealing with persons with special needs".
She concluded, "COVID-19 has tested all of us and we have to keep finding the best way to suppress this pandemic, as we continue to be compassionate and considerate to one another."
According to the MOH website, as of Monday, an average of 59,900 swab tests have been administered each day during the past week.
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