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The quarantine hotel that hosted a returned traveller who unwittingly spawned Melbourne’s infectious Delta outbreak spent April scrambling to improve substandard infection-control processes.
Despite concerns of a quarantine leak, the government is expecting to release Melbourne from tough lockdown restrictions on Thursday, moving to rules similar to those in regional Victoria.
Outside the Ibis hotel in Little Lonsdale Street on Tuesday.Credit:Eddie Jim
The manager and the infection-control boss of the Novotel Ibis in Little Lonsdale Street were sacked in late April after the discovery of more than 51 breaches, including 15 infection-control violations. The returned traveller arrived at the hotel from Sri Lanka on May 8.
Health authorities confirmed on Tuesday that a hotel leak was one of the most probable theories being examined to explain how the first link in a chain of Delta variant infections passed on the virus.
Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng said four theories were being investigated for how the Delta variant spread: that the man transmitted it at the hotel to a resident or worker; that he passed it on to a quarantine staff member as he was transferred from the airport or between hotels; that it was spread on the flight; or that the man transmitted it after he left hotel quarantine. Professor Cheng said the first two theories were the most likely.
Acting Premier James Merlino gives a coronavirus update on Tuesday. Credit:Joe Armao
Two COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria employees, who were not authorised to speak publicly, said the hotel had suffered from severe staffing shortages in the weeks after opening in April.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton and COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria Commissioner Emma Cassar were told of the Novotel’s problems in April. They gave repeated warnings to the two managers, who were eventually replaced less than a month after the hotel opened.
Mr Merlino said on Tuesday that there had been 21 breaches in hotel quarantine nationally in the past month. “We all know that hotel quarantine cannot be risk-free,” he said.
Exactly how the Delta variant seeded itself in Melbourne is a mystery that has divided experts.
All 12 residents who were on the same floor as the infected traveller at the Novotel hotel on May 8 had tested negative and at least 10 had returned negative tests after leaving quarantine.
Ms Cassar said two who did not get their day-17 and 20 tests were now being followed up. The public health team was examining all close contacts the man had at the airport and as he entered hotel quarantine, including combing through hours of CCTV footage.
However, Professor Cheng said health authorities had also reviewed the man’s swab and antibody blood test results and had determined he was correctly cleared to leave quarantine.
Ms Cassar said the only breach that authorities knew about was an instance when the man opened his hotel door at the Novotel.
“He would have had a very low level of infection at that point, but again there’s a negative-pressured room,” she told ABC Radio.
The staff member in the hallway, who was wearing an N95 mask and face shield, had since tested negative, she said.
Epidemiologist Mike Toole, from the Burnet Institute, said the most likely scenario was that the man somehow transmitted the virus after he left hotel quarantine.
“The thing is we don’t yet know with certainty that there was a leak out of hotel quarantine,” he said. “We don’t yet know if there was a crossover infection within the hotel or within transport, and I just don’t find the other three scenarios particularly convincing.”
Separately, senior officials leading Victoria’s contact-tracing efforts say they believe Melbourne’s Kappa coronavirus outbreak would have been contained to just over a dozen people if there had not been a delay between people developing symptoms and getting tested.
Health Department chief Euan Wallace said that after almost 90 days without a coronavirus case in Victoria, complacency had become a problem in the lead-up to the outbreak, first detected in May, and people were not seeking tests for a runny nose, sore throat or other symptoms.
The Health Department has estimated that if one of the earlier cases in the cluster had been tested within 48 hours the outbreak would have spread to only 14 people, instead of 73, and the outbreak at Stratton Finance in Port Melbourne would not have occurred.
With Rachael Dexter
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