Time to rethink city hotel quarantine system before another COVID-19 outbreak

Ian Bushnell 25 November 2020 8
COVID-19 testing

The face of the pandemic: the quarantine system is about to be really tested. Photo: ACT Health.

Let us hope that the short, sharp lockdown in South Australia will do its job and prevent a Victoria-like disaster there but the new COVID-19 outbreak only highlights the risky nature of the hotel quarantine system in the nation’s capitals.

Acting Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly acknowledged this when he announced mandatory weekly testing for hotel staff, although why this was not a part of the regime is mystifying.

Similar to but not identical to the Victorian outbreak, the COVID-19 cluster erupted in South Australia when a hotel staff member contracted the virus, probably from surface contact, and took it home.

So close to Christmas, the cluster has evoked fear and dismay after it appeared Australia had gotten on top of the virus and the nation could return to a degree of normality.

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But is it wise to continue to allow repatriated Australians from COVID-19 hotspots such as India and the UK to quarantine in hotels in the heart of our big population centres?

Canberra is doing its bit by taking two planeloads of returnees before Christmas, although the details are as yet unknown, and ACT Health is assuring us that all appropriate measures will be taken to avoid any transmission and the virus escaping into the community.

It’s a risk we have successfully managed before, and according to Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt it’s a risk that can continue to be managed as inevitably the odd cluster emerges.

But experts say the quarantine system is about to be really tested as the Federal Government increases the number of people being allowed home.

UNSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws says Australia needs purpose-built facilities not hotels where untrained staff can so easily let their guard down.

They also need to be outside big population centres, particularly Sydney and Melbourne, although Victoria is not taking any returnees as yet.

She points to sites such as the former workers’ camp of Howard Springs, which sits 25 km from Darwin.

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There are also the detention centres, conveniently located in isolated locations, that could be redeemed by being converted for a much better use.

“If the numbers of positive return travellers become so high, without a purpose-built environment, without really good airflow change, without high-level trained staff, there will be a spillover and it will go into the community,” Professor McLaws said.

“Hotel quarantine was a reasonable interim solution to bring Australians back safely but it’s now been nine months since the public health emergency was called.”

Australia has used its advantage as an island well to avoid the nightmare unfolding around the world and should press that advantage by containing any potential virus threat from overseas in the kinds of isolated, purpose-built facilities, Professor McLaws has suggested.

Bringing Australians back from countries where the virus is out of control, confined to an aeroplane and then transporting them to city centres to be housed in a multi-storey building that needs to be serviced by ill-equipped staff and security who return to their community every day is simply asking for trouble.

The cost in lives and economic carnage from more breakouts and successive waves of COVID-19 is too awful to contemplate.

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8 Responses to Time to rethink city hotel quarantine system before another COVID-19 outbreak
Meredith Baker Meredith Baker 8:50 pm 20 Nov 20

I don't understand why there isn't daily testing with the fast saliva test for those in Medi hotels. It gives results in 5 or so minutes and is very cheap and work by Joshua Gans suggests that they are accurate.

If someone tests positive with that method then action can be immediately taken. Authorities can also do back up testing with the more expensive testing that takes 24 hours.

Linda Stapleton Linda Stapleton 10:20 am 20 Nov 20

Testing staff once a week is a joke to begin with. Imagine how many people could be infected by the time they find out they are positive...major disaster just there. Safety procedures are pathetic, obviously, so I think a pause in bringing people home until the authorities get off their backsides and work things out properly.

    Julia Ross Julia Ross 7:48 am 21 Nov 20

    Linda Stapleton I'm with you, I think there should be a pause in bringing overseas people home but unfortunately we can't stop Australian citizens coming home.

    Lee Lee Lee Lee 10:08 pm 21 Nov 20

    Linda Stapleton so you're a medical professional? Epidemiologist? Pandemic medicine specialist? No? Perhaps you should actually listen to the experts then.

    Linda Stapleton Linda Stapleton 8:44 am 22 Nov 20

    Lee Lee we have listened to the experts and how many resident Aussies have died because the experts got cocky, said 'we've got it,don't worry'???? Over 700 in Victoria wasn't it?...but hey you continue to blindly believe they know what they are doing while the rest of us pray we don't become part of that head count.

    I would hate to be one coming home to Aus and inadvertently infecting and killing others because the experts stuffed up again...

    Linda Stapleton Linda Stapleton 8:49 am 22 Nov 20

    Julia my issue is not Aussies coming home. My issue is the repeated failures and inability of the experts to learn from their mistakes, but my biggest concern is the increasing head count due to their errors.

chewy14 chewy14 7:05 am 20 Nov 20

Yes, got to agree with this.

We’ve now had two outbreaks caused by the state hotel quarantine systems and they need rethinking.

Returned travellers are far and away the greatest risk to major outbreaks and need to be treated differently than the current system.

Whilst it may be painful for those returned travellers to be locked away for 2 weeks in purpose built facilities, the risk to the rest of the population and the wider economy is too great.

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