October 4, 2023

Authorities worried UK strain of COVID-19 may be so infectious it broke through normal quarantine protocols

Contact tracers are scrambling to pinpoint close contacts of a Brisbane quarantine hotel cleaner diagnosed…

Authorities worried UK strain of COVID-19 may be so infectious it broke through normal quarantine protocols

Contact tracers are scrambling to pinpoint close contacts of a Brisbane quarantine hotel cleaner diagnosed with COVID-19 after tests confirmed she was carrying the more contagious UK variant.

Authorities in Queensland are highly concerned about the case after the woman, aged in her 20s, was out in the community for several days, before developing symptoms on Wednesday and testing positive.

It is the first time in the nation that a person has been out in the community while unknowingly ill with the highly-infectious strain.

On Thursday night restrictions were imposed on aged care facilities across greater Brisbane, with visits to hospitals, disability services and corrections facilities also limited as a precaution.

The woman is the first quarantine worker in Queensland to be infected and health authorities stressed she “did everything right”.

Queensland virologist and program director at Griffith University’s Menzies Health Institute, Professor Nigel McMillan, said Queensland had run a very successful hotel quarantine program for some time now.

“Is this UK strain so infectious it broke through our normal protocols? That might be one conclusion,” Dr McMillan said.

Here’s what we know.

When did she test positive?

The cleaner developed symptoms on Wednesday and was tested the same day, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told a press conference.

She had already been tested on December 29 — as part of “routine” weekly testing of hotel quarantine staff — and was negative.

People line up late at night at a COVID testing site at Eight Miles Plains.
About 150 people lined up at a new 24-hour testing site about 10:30pm on Thursday at Eight Mile Plains, in Brisbane’s south.(Supplied: Heather McMillian)

Authorities believe she had been infectious since January 2 — the date she worked one shift as a casual quarantine cleaner at the Hotel Grand Chancellor in Leichhardt Street in Brisbane’s CBD.

Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young said the woman had been “fantastic” and been cooperating fully with authorities.

“We know this is a very infectious virus, and we know that it can escape — it’s done that in multiple other sites around the country.”

Genome sequencing later revealed the woman had the mutated UK variant of COVID-19.

A returned traveller who had stayed at that hotel had been previously been confirmed as carrying that variant.

The latest case ends Queensland’s streak of 113 days without community coronavirus cases.

Hotel Grand Chancellor at Spring Hill in Brisbane
The woman was a casual quarantine cleaner at the Hotel Grand Chancellor in Brisbane’s CBD.(ABC News: Talissa Siganto)

Where has she been in the community?

As of Thursday afternoon, Queensland Health had listed five contact tracing sites:

  • Train from Sunnybank’s Altandi station to Roma street, arriving at 7:00am on Saturday, January 2
  • Train from Brisbane City’s Central station to Altandi station, arriving at 4:00pm on Saturday, January 2
  • Woolworths Calamvale North between 11:00am and 12:00pm on Sunday, January 3
  • Coles Sunnybank Hills Shoppingtown between 7:30am and 8:00am on Tuesday, January 5
  • Nextra Sunnybank Hills Newsagent between 8:00 and 8:15am on Tuesday, January 5

Anyone who has been to those locations — whether or not they have symptoms — is urged get tested and isolate until they receive their result.

Even if it is negative, people are asked to continue to monitor for symptoms and get retested if needed.

Dr Young said it was likely more locations would be revealed as health authorities continued speaking to the woman and those around her.

She said Queensland Health would also be directly contacting close contacts of the woman and asking them to get tested and quarantine, whether or not they were showing symptoms.

Anyone who has symptoms and lives in Algester, Sunnybank Hills or Calamvale has been urged to get tested.

What is known about the UK variant in Australia?

Dr Young said evidence showed the new UK variant was 70 per cent more infectious than other strains.

National Cabinet is meeting urgently today in response to the growing threat posed by the UK strain.

It is expected to approve new measures to strengthen COVID-19 protections covering international and domestic travel.

How did the strain get out?

That will be a focus of health authorities.

Dr McMillan said Queensland’s hotel quarantine program had been a “model”, with no outbreaks until this point.

“Obviously we’re doing something right — perhaps this UK strain is really much more problematic than previous strains,” he said.

“Is this UK strain so infectious it broke through our normal protocols? That might be one conclusion.

In the wake of the case, Queensland authorities will ramp up testing of hotel quarantine staff — from per week to per shift — starting Monday.

Dr McMillan said that was a “good move” and people needed to be vigilant.

“Ultimately this virus is very infectious anyway — no matter what the particular strain is — so we’ll swing into action and do all the things we need to do and hopefully we can get this under control,” he said.

A Queensland Police Service (QPS) spokeswoman said it and Queensland Health would work together with hotel management and other support agencies to ensure everyone undergoing hotel quarantine was provided with suitable accommodation.

“If a Queensland resident arrives from a COVID-19 declared hotspot they will be processed and provided with a hotel quarantine direction,” the QPS spokeswoman said in a statement.

“Once passengers have been provided with a hotel quarantine direction, officers will escort those entering hotel quarantine to a mode of transport, currently busses and taxis are being used.

“It is the discretion of the District Disaster Coordination Centre (DDCC) to decide which hotel people will be placed in.

“Many factors are assessed during this process including; hotel capacity, medical conditions and number of guests in one room.”

The QPS spokeswoman said all Queensland hotels assisting the Queensland Government with accommodation are presently not being used for any other purpose.

“This allows the QPS to spread the guests out over the hotel and provide the best suited accommodation for the guest,” the spokeswoman said.

“Specific health measures have been implemented at all hotels participating in the quarantine program to restrict guests from having direct contact with other guests, staff and police.

“There is 24/7 police presence at all Queensland quarantine hotels, where officers provide welfare and security checks.”

In Western Australia, authorities confirmed a patient at the centre of multiple PPE protocol breaches tested positive for the new mutant strain of COVID-19 that originated in the UK.

The woman in her 80s arrived in WA on January 2, before being transported from hotel quarantine to Royal Perth Hospital for medical attention on Tuesday.

An airport worker, a nurse, and an ambulance officer all breached PPE protocols in their dealings with the patient.

The WA Government ordered a full review into the breaches, but reassured the community the incidents did not pose a threat to public safety.