Two new positive coronavirus cases among Victoria’s quarantine hotel workers in five days has forced the state’s health authorities to move quickly to impose new rules.
A worker at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport tested positive on Sunday, after visiting several locations while potentially infectious on her days off.
Community-wide coronavirus precautions had already been tightened after a residential support officer at an Australian Open quarantine hotel tested positive to the more-contagious UK strain of the virus on Wednesday.
The 26-year-old man from Noble Park had already left the role and returned a negative test on his last day working at the Grand Hyatt.
Here’s what we know about the recent cases and what’s changing in hotel quarantine in response.
How are the quarantine hotel protocols changing?
From today, all COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria (CQV) workers will be tested daily — whether they’re on shift or not.
While voluntary to begin with, the Government intends to make testing on their days off mandatory.
Details are still being worked out about how that may happen, but workers may be given cards to show at testing sites so they can jump the queue, Ms Neville said.
Previously, quarantine workers only had to be tested on days they were working.
Authorities had already started staggering hotel meal deliveries and ordering all workers to wear face shields and masks following the previous case of hotel transmission last week.
And an investigation is underway into hotel airconditioning for possible problems with ventilation.
“What we’ve seen this week is that this virus is more contagious, it’s moving differently, it’s lasting longer,” said Victorian Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville, who overseas the hotel quarantine system.
“Buffers” have also been added between rooms occupied by large family groups to avoid any risk of aerosol transmission.
How was the latest case transmitted?
The case confirmed Sunday was an authorised officer at the Holiday Inn hotel who became symptomatic after having a few days off work and subsequently tested positive.
Her role involved dealing with new arrivals and issuing notices to transfer positive cases to health hotels.
Authorities don’t think there were any breaches of hotel quarantine, but they’re using genomic testing to see if there was any link between her case and three positive cases who were transferred to a health hotel from the Holiday Inn in recent days.
CQV has released a list of places she visited on Friday and Saturday. See the full list here.
How is the Holiday Inn case different?
There have been two other recent cases of suspected transmission in hotel quarantine.
One involved the residential support officer while another involved a family at the ParkRoyal Hotel in January.
Authorities are baffled as to how the residential support officer became infected — no direct link has been found between him and any other case, Ms Neville said.
“It appears that there’s an intermediary in between, which means it could be a surface,” she said.
The situation at the ParkRoyal is different. There, the virus is thought to have passed between guests as they opened the doors to their rooms to accept a delivery.
“They opened their doors at the same time, for seconds. What it’s indicative of is that the strains that are coming from the UK and South Africa are different, and are responding differently,” Ms Neville said.
“Interestingly about the ParkRoyal case is that the husband didn’t get it, in the same room.”
Why aren’t all hotel quarantine workers wearing N95 masks?
Most workers in Victoria’s quarantine hotels are now wearing face shields with a surgical mask.
Only the workers who deal with confirmed positive cases need to wear an N95 mask, plus full PPE.
Ms Neville said the use of surgical masks instead of N95 was based on advice from the infection prevention control team.
“The advice from the infection prevention control team — we have a steering group for CQV — was clearly that to move everyone to N95 was not going to be the best solution,” she said.
“Because of the way they operate and how people use them that it in fact may be more risky.”
Could the virus be spreading through the airconditioning?
CQV is waiting for the release of another report into the potential for the virus to be spread through hotel airconditioning systems.
Epidemiologists have repeatedly raised concerns that Australia isn’t taking aerosol transmission seriously enough, after a number of suspected cases within quarantine hotels in Victoria and elsewhere.
Ms Neville said today that previous investigations had suggested there was no issue with the hotel ventilation, but all potential risks were being examined.
“We’re still pretty confident about the engineering reports that show that there’s no sharing of air between rooms or into common areas,” said Ms Neville.
“But again we’ve got our occupational physician who’s coming in with the engineering team to see if there’s anything else with airconditioning or any risk there.”
Will the recent cases affect moves to raise arrival caps?
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced last week that the number of new arrivals would be lifted from 4,127 to 6,362 people each week.
Under the new limits, NSW and Victoria would take the lion’s share of new arrivals at 3,010 and 1,310 passengers each week.
Ms Neville said today that while Victoria was working towards lifting the cap, a final decision hadn’t been made.
“The issue of staffing, airconditioning, what we’re seeing now will influence our decision on that,” she said.
“We haven’t made a decision to not scale up yet, and we haven’t got a decision to scale down.”
She said if the ventilation review showed changes to airconditioning were needed, it could “slow the ramp up of the program.”