New South Wales health authorities will ramp up testing on workers transporting Australians returning from overseas, after an infected driver unwittingly put thousands of people in Greater Sydney at risk of contracting COVID-19.
- Staff in police-managed quarantine hotels will get tested daily for COVID-19, including drivers
- NSW may also test international airline crew who arrive in Australia
- Fixing flaws in quarantine is crucial now as a more contagious variant starts circulating overseas
Drivers had been getting weekly throat and nose swabs for the virus, but from January 21, all people transporting passengers coming back from overseas will have a daily saliva test.
The test involves taking a small amount of saliva to detect fragments of the virus and is about 85 per cent accurate at picking up COVID-19.
Security staff in NSW quarantine hotels have been getting saliva tests every day they present for work since mid-December.
“Progressive roll out to other staff in the police-managed quarantine hotels will occur throughout January and February 2021,” NSW Health said in a statement.
“We will also be implementing daily saliva and weekly oropharyngeal testing [swabs] of all staff in the special health accommodation, including NSW Patient Transport Staff from January 21, 2021.”
Sites deemed “special health accommodation” are those where returned travellers who have tested positive for COVID-19 are looked after by medical staff.
The announcement comes a day before premiers and chief ministers will take part in a National Cabinet to discuss mutant UK strain of COVID-19 to discuss the threat posed by a mutant variant of the COVID-19 virus that has emerged in the United Kingdom.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the meeting had been called following a request from Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly and the national expert medical panel, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.
State leaders will discuss a proposal to further strengthen the COVID-19 safety protocols for international travel, particularly in regards to the UK variant.
Several states dealing with hotel quarantine leaks
While Australia has done well to limit the community transmission of COVID-19, flaws in the system for Australians returning from overseas have plunged states, including NSW and Victoria, back into lockdown.
Professor Raina McIntyre from the Kirby Institute told 7.30 on Wednesday, flaws in the hotel quarantine system could lead to an epidemic in Australia more severe than we have seen.
Western Australian authorities are now investigating two possible breaches of the state’s quarantine system.
Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 was triggered by transmission of the virus from hotel quarantine into the community through poorly trained private security guards.
The hotel quarantine inquiry report found hotels also had poor cleaning products and training and guards made poor use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
In NSW, a 45-year-old van driver contracted the virus in December while transporting a family returning from overseas to a quarantine hotel.
The driver passed COVID-19 onto a colleague, who then visited a bottle shop in Berala, triggering the latest cluster in Sydney.
South Australian Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier said poor ventilation at Adelaide’s quarantine hotel may have triggered the coronavirus cluster that sent the state into lockdown in November.
A review of that system did not identify any significant breaches of infection control.
Australians returning home bring UK variant of COVID-19
Fixing potential flaws in the hotel quarantine system now is crucial as Australians returning home are bringing back the more contagious variant of COVID-19, NSW Chief Medical Officer Dr Kerry Chant said on Wednesday.
The new strain appears to be more contagious as it might increase the amount of virus coming out of your mouth or nose when you talk, cough or sneeze.
Scientists know the virus that causes COVID-19 is highly infectious and can be spread through the tiny particles in the air which accumulate in poorly ventilated settings.
So experts say it is vitally important that anyone who comes into contact with someone who might be infected — including patient and quarantine transport drivers — wear a properly-fitted N-95 medical mask.
NSW Health authorities said “strict infection control and prevention practices, including the appropriate use of PPE such as face masks and gloves, are in place at all points within the [returned traveller] program”.
But despite repeated requests by the ABC, health authorities have not specified exactly what kind of PPE patient drivers were wearing.
On Wednesday, the WA Government said it was investigating two possible breaches of PPE protocols.
One of the cases involves an ambulance officer who transported a COVID-19 patient to hospital.
The woman in her 80s arrived from the UK last week; further testing will determine if she has the new variant of the virus.
WA Premier Mark McGowan said the investigation involved whether one of the paramedics who transported her followed appropriate protocols.
“I’m advised it’s one that there are concerns about; no, I haven’t been given any excuses. When we learn what has occurred we’ll make that public,” he said.
‘No single action can make it totally safe’
While some experts have called for everyone getting on a plane to Australia to be tested for COVID-19, such a measure may not have prevented the current outbreak in NSW or the previous one in Victoria.
“Adding testing or prior-to-departure screening, I think, is useful in some circumstances,” Dr Chant said.
“No single action can make it totally safe. That’s why we have the quarantine period for … 14 days. We do know in-flight transmission is a risk. And we are concerned when people are transiting through various hubs.”
Victoria has recently begun testing all international flight crew for the virus when they return — something NSW is also looking to introduce.
“We’ll progressively look at testing [airline crew]. I have reached out to Qantas and Qantas have indicated they’re going to regularly test their flight crew staff,” Dr Chant said.
She added overseas flight crew were required to “basically be in hotel quarantine with limited exemption for staff that may be residents in NSW”.
“We’ve also ensured that the flight crew cannot reposition or travel on any domestic legs.”