An urgent review into cases of suspected transmission of COVID-19 in Victoria’s hotel quarantine system is underway, after a cluster of cases at a hotel near Melbourne Airport grew to three.
- Authorities say the latest cases were likely transmitted on one floor at the quarantine hotel
- The floor at the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport has been closed
- Epidemiologists say newer coronavirus strains are harder to contain
The cases now include two quarantine workers and a returned traveller and are all linked to the same floor of the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport.
The traveller, who left the hotel on February 7, tested positive to COVID-19 yesterday.
As contact tracing was underway, authorities said they believed the woman had likely been infected in hotel quarantine, rather than having an incubation period of 16 days or longer.
Authorities said they believed the woman had mainly stayed home after she left quarantine.
A quarantine hotel food and beverage worker at the Holiday Inn also tested positive on Tuesday.
The two cases were recorded as locally acquired infections, detected from 22,849 test results processed on Tuesday. There were no cases in returned travellers.
And on Sunday, an authorised officer who had worked at the same Holiday Inn tested positive.
The cases were all linked the same floor of the hotel, which is no longer being used.
Returned travellers who completed hotel quarantine on that floor of the hotel in the past week will have to undergo a further 14 days of isolation.
The department is updating its website with the latest information about potential exposure sites, which now includes multiple locations in Sunbury.
Option to close hotel if necessary
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton said he wanted a “root and branch” review into the latest cases, but said they were reflective of the increased risk posed by new, more contagious variants of the virus.
He said the review’s focus was on the hotel floor where the suspected transmission likely took place.
“It is absolutely focussed on that floor and all of the individuals who’ve been on that floor, staff or residents, are going to be in quarantine and will go through the testing process,” Professor Sutton said.
“If there’s any indication that the risk extends beyond that floor, then it’s an option for us to close the hotel if need be.”
But Health Minister Martin Foley said at this stage, he did not believe there was a general problem at the airport Holiday Inn.
“Not at the moment, we don’t think so … for a variety of reasons with the number of staff, from the authorised officer who were close contacts, the capacity of that facility has been reduced, so it’s really come down in terms of numbers there,” he said.
“It’s early days but it would appear that it is one particular floor and that floor is certainly not taking any further residents.
“But CQV (COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria) are going through a process and if there’s the need for any further measures then they’ll certainly be taking them.”
New ‘sneaky’ virus variants
Professor Sutton said suspected transmission of the virus in hotel quarantine would be front and centre for the nation’s chief health officers starting today.
He said measures to protect against new variants, with greater transmissibility, would be reviewed.
“It’ll be an end-to-end review of all of the mitigations that can be put into place, including the testing before someone leaves their country of origin to come to Australia but also … elements that you can put in place to reduce the risk of transmissions, so that’s the distancing, the cleaning, the testing and the personal protective equipment and everything in between, so that’s going to be a focus for my colleagues and I this coming week.”
Last week, a 26-year-old worker at another Melbourne quarantine hotel, the Grand Hyatt returned a positive COVID-19 test, sparking a snap tightening of Victoria’s restrictions.
There are now 1,318 primary close contacts in total identified with that case.
Epidemiologists, including Tony Blakely from the University of Melbourne, agreed the cases in the hotel quarantine system suggested the newer variants of the virus were more difficult to contain.
“It’s probably related to aerosol, it might also be surfaces, but pulling back a bit, what we’ve got is more infectious variants coming into the country.
“We’ve learnt that this virus is so sneaky it will get out from time to time.
“We’ve been lucky so far that the infectious variant hasn’t got out into the community and spread rapidly, but that is our fear.”
Call for more regional quarantine centres
Professor Blakely said government needed to look at using more regional quarantine facilities at special centres like Howard Springs in the Northern Territory “and shifting as many people out there who come in from high risk countries as possible”.
He said he sensed a slight shift in the Federal Government’s stance on hotel quarantine.
“I’m detecting a little bit of a change from Canberra from the Federal Government their view about the regional centres for quarantine, it’s little bit more thinking about it and I suspect we’ll see some action on that … we need to improve our quarantine and just constantly evolve it to keep up with this virus which is mutating to more transmissible forms.”
But he said there was some comfort knowing the vaccine was soon to arrive, with doses expected to be administered to hotel quarantine workers late this month and early March.
Meanwhile, Marc Pellegrini, who heads the Department of Infection and Immunity at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, said there was growing evidence that better ventilation was needed to safely contain the more infectious strains of the virus.
“You might speculate that now, the ventilation that was adequate for a less infective strain is not adequate for a strain that’s much more infective,” Professor Pellegrini said.
“That’s speculative, but it’s certainly a picture that’s emerging.”
Deakin University’s epidemiology chair Catherine Bennett said that N95 masks should be in use for hotel quarantine workers in support roles.
“I think every guest should be treated as positive and we should have the best protection for those workers who are dealing directly [with guests] or have a longer exposure within the same area,” she said.
“I think the people who are the support, the RSO officers who are on the floor who are actually doing the corridor monitoring … the people at reception … the people who are potentially taking the food along the corridors … those corridors remain a high-risk space,” she said.
“We have to look at ventilation of the corridors.”