Two Australian states have urged staff and guests in COVID-19 quarantine hotels to get tested for the coronavirus immediately and fully self-isolate, as they began investigations into three suspected cases of travellers contracting the virus from other residents.
Australian citizens arriving back from overseas are required to spend two weeks in quarantine at a hotel at their own expense before returning home as part of the border closures Australia introduced in March last year as the pandemic spread around the world. More than 200,000 people have passed through the system since.
Officials in New South Wales (NSW) and Western Australia state – on opposite sides of the country – said genetic sequencing found links to the same sequence of virus in infected guests resident in hotels in Sydney and Perth during routine tests. The cases are not currently believed to be connected.
“We don’t have a definitive conclusion around the way the transmission occurred at this point in time,” NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant told reporters on Thursday.
More than 200,000 people have passed through the country’s hotel quarantine system since it was first, but it has also come in for criticism, particularly in the state of Victoria where a breach of procedures last June led to a wave of cases in the community and a months-long lockdown in Melbourne, Australia’s second-biggest city. The state only began accepting new international arrivals again earlier this month.
In the latest case in Sydney, a guest staying in a quarantine hotel tested positive for the virus with the same genetic sequence as infected people who were staying in a nearby room.
Authorities worry guests who tested negative at the end of their NSW hotel quarantine and were allowed to leave could have already been exposed to the virus, raising the risk of it spreading in the community. Several of those who were in quarantine have already travelled to other states and territories, officials said.
NSW authorities on Sunday said they would investigate how a family of three quarantined in a different Sydney hotel returned positive tests with the same virus sequence as a non-related family of four quarantined in the same building.
Meanwhile, Western Australia state late on Wednesday said two sets of guests staying in a Perth hotel in opposite rooms were found to have the same sequence of virus, despite having arrived from different countries at different times.
Dr Andrew Miller, president of the Western Australian AMA, said risk factors such as ventilation and airflow were “still not being taken seriously enough” in the state’s hotel quarantine system.
“We do need to get a lot more transparency around this and understand why we haven’t got proper quarantine facilities because we have a long way to go in this pandemic,” he told TV network Channel Nine.
“We are seeing what is happening in Brazil and India. A lot of these people want to come back home where they belong and the solution is not to just keep the border shut. You have to fix your health and quarantine system at the same time.”
Since its quarantine breaches, Victoria has revised the system to account for the airborne transmission of the virus, modifying hotel ventilation systems to ensure that when guests open their doors, the air flows from the corridor into the room, rather than from the room into the corridor.
Among other measures, hotel and quarantine staff have also been given higher standard personal protective equipment including N95 masks, while those in quarantine will be tested for COVID-19 more often.
“The restart of the Victorian system – with these new measures targeted at airborne transmission – offers a golden opportunity to inform other jurisdictions and, hopefully, to develop a national standard for hotel quarantine,” Michael Toole, a professor of public health at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, wrote in The Conversation website when quarantine resumed.
While Australia has fared much better than many other developed countries in tackling the pandemic, reporting just over 29,500 cases and 910 deaths, it is struggling to accelerate its vaccination rollout.
Australia’s national cabinet will meet later on Thursday and is expected to urgently include people above 50 years old in the immunisation drive.