Mistake behind Melbourne’s new outbreak
As Victorian officials struggle to contain an outbreak of a dangerous mutant COVID-19 strain, serious questions are mounting over the major "mistake" that led to the cluster.
The number of cases linked to the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel in Melbourne has grown to 13, prompting fears the city could be forced into another harsh lockdown.
The first case in the new cluster was detected on Sunday after an Authorised Officer at the hotel tested positive to COVID-19.
Health authorities were confused as to how she had contracted the virus as her role required her to have minimal contact with quarantine guests.
It was later revealed a nebuliser, a medical device commonly used to inhale medications to treat lung conditions, was likely behind the outbreak.
Vice President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Dr Chris Moy said letting such a device past hotel quarantine security was a big mistake.
"We should be extremely worried about these new strains which look as though they are much more infectious," he told Sky News.
"It does appear there was a mistake in the hotel quarantine that a nebuliser was able to get through and somebody who was infected used the nebuliser.
"With these strains, we are really worried that you can't put the lid on it once it gets out."
The current theory of health officials is the authorised officer, food and beverage worker and a resident who has since left hotel quarantine became infected when a quarantine guest with the virus used a nebuliser for medical treatment.
That caused fine aerosolised particles carrying coronavirus to be suspended in the air and spread throughout the hotel.
"If the door of the room is opened for getting a meal that aerosolised virus sitting in the air can move out into the corridor," chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton said.
A paper published by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care in May 2020 said nebulisers were "not recommended" in patients with COVID-19 as it may "contribute to the spread of the virus".
"Nebulisers disperse infectious virus particles often metres around and can rapidly spread infection from respiratory viruses, such as influenza and SARS-CoV-2," they said.
"The risk of infection transmission via aerosols may increase during nebulisation due to the potential to generate a high volume of respiratory aerosols that may be propelled over a longer distance than occurs with natural dispersion."
With the quarantine cluster continuing to grow, there are fears Premier Daniel Andrews could put Melbourne back into lockdown.
It is understood that state government advisers met overnight to draw up a framework for another lockdown, which could be introduced as early as Friday night.
Authorities are also understood to be concerned about virus fragments being detected at sewage treatment plants across Melbourne, suggesting more cases of COVID-19 could be going undetected.
A source close to Emergency Management Victoria told the Herald Sun authorities feared they had lost control of the outbreak - describing scenes of "pandemonium" at the agency.
They told the newspaper there were deep concerns at the failure of contact tracers to match information they had been given by confirmed cases and their close contacts with what the results of sewage testing was showing about the virus's spread.
So far six of the 13 cases have been confirmed as the UK's highly contagious B117 strain but officials are reportedly working on the theory that all the new cases are the mutant strain.
In an interview with 3AW, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Victorian government was looking at all options
"Well they are still working through those issues now,'' Mr Morrison said.
"They are assessing all of those options."
He said that the traumatising impact of the lockdowns on Victorians was very "real" and he understood why it was upsetting news that the option was on the table, but suggested a short, sharp lockdown had worked in the past for other states to give contact tracers a head start.
-With Ben Graham
Originally published as Mistake behind Melbourne's new outbreak