As it was confirmed the highly infectious UK strain leaked from yet another quarantine hotel in Melbourne late on Sunday, a growing number of experts have renewed calls for major changes to quarantine programs.
Since November, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, Perth and Melbourne have all experienced leaks from hotel quarantine, coinciding with the emergence of the new viral strains overseas. Melbourne has had three hotel quarantine leaks in the past fortnight.
Yet aside from Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, state leaders responsible for the nation’s biggest cities have dismissed repeated proposals for moving quarantine programs out of densely-populated cities and into regional areas.
Amid mounting pressure for the federal government to step in and take a greater control over quarantine, Prime Minister Scott Morrison himself reiterated that hotels remain the most effective method of quarantine.
He also questioned a Queensland proposal that would see a facility that is yet to be built outside of Toowoomba house up to 6000 people.
Three ‘paramount’ changes needed
With little sign of immediate change, Melbourne University public health expert Tony Blakely revealed to the Herald Sun three “paramount” actions needed to minimise the risk in hotels moving forward.
Firstly, he believes many returned travellers need to be sent to facilities better equipped for handling infectious people.
“As much as we can, [we need to] expand capacity in purpose built or ‘better’ facilities such as Howard Springs – and preferentially send higher risk people to these facilities where there is better natural ventilation, and lesser opportunity for aerosol transmission in dead spaces like corridors,” he said.
Secondly, he advises continued learning as to what can be improved in current facilities.
With fears the recent leaks are due to airborne transmission, further precautions need to be taken, Professor Blakely said.
He suggests ideas such as increased reviews, improved ventilation, prohibiting multiple doors opened at once and cohorting people by arrival date.
Professor Catherine Bennett, the chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, has also called for all security guards outside rooms to be replaced by CCTV.
Finally, Prof Blakely called for all quarantine workers to be prioritised for the vaccine’s imminent rollout.
“Vaccinate the border as priority,” he said.
“With Pfizer, we would expect 70 to 80 per cent reduction in the chance a quarantine worker is infected and able to carry the virus out of a hotel.”
Vaccine problems could prompt program change
The Pfizer vaccine is due to be rolled out at the end of the month, yet AstraZeneca vaccine complications presented by the mutation of the virus in South Africa could derail the widespread rollout in Australia.
University of South Australia epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman warns issues with the vaccine due to new strains should justify calls for new rural facilities as proposed by Queensland’s government.
“There will no doubt be arguments made that such a program isn’t worth it because we’re only a few weeks away from vaccinating border and quarantine staff,” he wrote for The Conversation.
“But this misses the key point that vaccines won’t cause COVID to disappear overnight.
“The South African government has just stopped the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine because of its poor effectiveness against the South African variant.
“This virus will be with us for a long time to come, so relocating quarantine stations to remote settings is still a worthy investment.”
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