People entering a Singapore public hospital will soon have their every movement electronically tracked and recorded in an effort to curb the spread of SARS, government officials said yesterday.
The Hospital Movement Tracking System has been tested in one of the city state's hospitals and will be installed in the island's other health care facilities starting next week, said Khaw Boon Wan, a senior minister of state for transport and information.
The government believes if a new SARS infection occurs in their hospitals, the system will make locating people who may have been exposed to the illness up to ten times faster.
Khaw was appointed head of the SARS Combat Unit, a new government team tasked with handling the SARS crisis, two weeks ago. He and other members of the unit tried out the tracking system yesterday at Singapore's Alexandra Hospital.
The officials donned credit card-sized tags that dangled from a string around their necks and communicated via radio frequencies with sensors hidden in hospital ceilings. After a 20-minute walk through the wards, they were shown a list of the 30 or so people that each had encountered, including those with whom they had merely been in the same room as.
Everyone who passes through a Singapore hospital entrance will eventually have to wear such a tag. Records of the movements will be kept for 20 days -- twice the incubation period of severe acute respiratory disease -- then destroyed, Khaw said.
"This is purely for SARS purposes and nothing else," Khaw said, assuring people that the data would not be abused or violate anyone's privacy.
The system will cost about 500,000 Singapore dollars (US$287,356) per hospital, Khaw said. There are six public hospitals in the tiny Southeast Asian nation.
"Our losses (from SARS) are in the billions so if we need to spend a few million here and there, I think it's worth doing," said Khaw.
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has said the disease could cost Singapore as much as 1.5 billion Singapore dollars (US$842 million) this year.
SARS has killed 27 people in Singapore over the past nine weeks.
On Friday, the city state's Health Ministry reported that a 72-year-old man already hospitalized for other ailments had tested positive for SARS, bringing the total number of probable cases here to 205.
The last SARS case to be found in the community was on April 27. If there are no new cases in the community by May 18, the government and the World Health Organization will declare the outbreak here under control.
But Khaw warned Singaporeans against assuming the worst was over.
"If we are not careful and we let our guard down, the clock will be reset to day one (of the outbreak)," he said, adding that SARS is still "spinning out of control in some cities" and that one imported case could spark a whole new cluster of cases.