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How self-isolation at an Adelaide pub sparked the "Thebarton Cluster"

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A cluster linked to at least five positive COVID-19 cases in South Australia –  prompting a SA Health alert, the closure of a western suburbs school and forcing 1100 people and Opposition leaders into self-isolation – was sparked by self-isolation at a Walkerville hotel that went awry. Stephanie Richards tracks what happened.

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What has been dubbed the “Thebarton Cluster” had its genesis in an accommodation suite at the Walkers Arms Hotel, where a man aged in his 20s chose to self-isolate after returning from Victoria on Sunday, July 26.

The SA Health website advises that people entering South Australia from Victoria, NSW or ACT “must self-quarantine for 14 days on arrival in suitable accommodation”.

The essential worker returned a negative COVID-19 test when he arrived, but SA Police say he told officers he would self-isolate at the Walkers Arms Hotel rather than at home in order to avoid coming in contact with others.

Neither SA Health nor the Walkers Arms Hotel were informed.

SA Health told InDaily: “There is no requirement for individuals to inform SA Health of their quarantine location.”

On how to self-isolate or self-quarantine, SA Health says: “You must stay at a suitable place and not leave unless to seek urgent medical care. You must not go to public places – this includes work, school, childcare, university, shopping centres, public parks, social or religious gatherings. You must not go shopping or to restaurants – shop online or have family or friends deliver what you need to your door. You must not have visitors at your home. Only people who usually live with you should be in the home – they must not sleep or be in the same room as you. If you must leave home to seek urgent medical care, wear a surgical mask.”

But after checking-in to the hotel on July 27, the man was in close contact with a woman aged in her 20s.

While at the hotel, the man developed coronavirus symptoms.

SA Health has confirmed to InDaily that the man left his hotel room and travelled to a COVID-19 clinic to be tested.

The man returned a positive COVID-19 test on Wednesday July 29. It was only then that SA Health was informed.

“SA Health is provided information about a specific quarantine location if and when an individual becomes a positive case,” it said in a statement to InDaily.

“SA Health then makes a determination of the suitability of remaining at this location in terms of clinical care.”

SA Health said that following the positive test, SA Ambulance officers wearing full personal protective gear arrived at the hotel to escort and transport the man to supervised quarantine at a medi-hotel in the city.

SA Health then immediately began trying to trace anyone who had come into contact with him.

“As part of our contact tracing process, anyone who is determined a close contact of a confirmed case will be contacted and identified by the Communicable Disease and Control Branch (CDCB) to assess any risk and make decisions on who may need to isolate,” SA Health said.

“A close contact is someone who has had face-to-face contact for at least 15 minutes, or has been in the same closed space for at least 2 hours, as someone who has tested positive for the COVID-19 when that person was infectious. Close contacts are advised by public health officials of the need to self-isolate.

“Following our extensive interview processes, we notified one close contact of the need to self-isolate.”

A woman who had been in close contact with the man at the hotel tested positive for COVID-19.

But before that, she had visited Thebarton Senior and Roma Mitchell Secondary colleges while infectious, forcing the temporary closure of both schools, affecting more than 2000 students and staff.

On Monday, August 3, SA Health reported that a 50-year-old male has tested positive for COVID-19, but no further details were given.

On Wednesday, August 5, chief public health office Professor Nicola Spurrier revealed that a Walkers Arms Hotel staff member had also been infected by the man while in self-isolation.

This gentlemen did attempt to self-isolate correctly and he did the right thing because he went to a hotel rather than his home, but unfortunately quarantine does mean you stay in your room and you don’t have anybody in there and you don’t come in close contact with them,” she told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“Unfortunately that wasn’t the case because he was able to transmit that to a number of people – one included somebody that worked at the hotel – and it just shows how transmissible this virus is.”

However, hotel manager Steven Munro told InDaily soon after Spurrier’s August 5 interview that none of his employees were infected with COVID-19, and SA Health had advised him that the hotel could continue to trade as normal.

Munro said that the only staff member who came in contact with the man – the accommodation manager who checked him in to the hotel – had taken and returned a negative COVID-19 test.  

“I’m sure she (the accommodation manager) is going to get plenty more tests in the next 14 days, but as far as we know she got her test back and she’s got a negative result,” he said.

He said that SA Health told the hotel it was not necessary to undertake a deep clean of its premises “as the guest was contained to their room and then removed by SA Health”, but management had decided to do so anyway “off our own back”.

“They (SA Health) said all the way from accommodation through to bistro you’re absolutely fine to go ahead and trade as normal,” he said.

After InDaily published a story highlighting the apparent contradictions about a staff member testing positive, the hotel posted an update on its Facebook page saying that it had just learned that a hotel cleaner had been confirmed as a case.

This is not the time to be asking questions and blaming people

But it reaffirmed that SA Health “at no stage” told it to shut.

The hotel cleaner is believed to be the 50-year-old reported as a case on Monday, but SA Health wouldn’t confirm that on privacy grounds.

SA Health told InDaily it had provided advice to the Walkers Arms about regular cleaning and close contacts, prior to Professor Spurrier mentioning the hotel publicly.

When asked when it had advised the hotel that a staff member had tested positive, SA Health said: “A workplace would only be informed if determined one of their staff had been at work while infectious.”

“Out of an abundance of caution, we have advised anyone who was in the vicinity (of the Walkers Arms Hotel) to monitor for symptoms and self-isolate and get tested if they develop any symptoms.” it said.

SA Health advice issued on Tuesday, August 4.

The cluster has since grown to include two more cases: a woman aged in her 20s who tested positive on Monday August 3 after visiting several public places while infectious, and a third young woman aged in her 20s who tested positive yesterday after attending Thebarton Senior College.

In response, SA Health today ordered 94 Thebarton Senior College students to be placed in immediate quarantine at a city medi-hotel, and another 1100 students, staff and their families to self-isolate until mid-August.

Those in self-isolation who work in aged care, disability care or health care will get priority COVID-19 testing.

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas and his deputy Susan Close are also self-isolating after visiting the campus last Thursday.  

Spurrier today said she wanted to put a “double ring” around the cluster to stop it from spreading further.

She said all of the people in the cluster had been “very, very compliant and very, very cooperative”.

“This is not the time to be asking questions and blaming people,” she said.

“People have absolutely done the right thing.”

SA Health said it is “continually reviewing” all of its processes, including hotel self-isolation, to ensure the health and safety of the community.  

The Opposition has called on the Government to impose mandatory medi-hotel quarantine for all people returning from Victoria.

Currently only essential workers are allowed to travel from Victoria into South Australia, with all other people – including SA residents – banned.

SA Police commissioner Grant Stevens said imposing mandatory hotel quarantine for all Victorian arrivals would pose a “challenge” for authorities.

He said almost a quarter of SA Police’s resources were already dedicated to controlling the spread of COVID-19 and “every time we open up a hotel to accommodate these people (in self-isolation) that starts to chip in to our ability to do the rest of our job”.

South Australia today recorded two new COVID-19 cases – a woman aged in her 20s and a man aged in his 50s – both of whom arrived in Adelaide in August 4 on repatriation flights and are not linked to the Thebarton Cluster.

Spurrier said the pair, who are not related, were tested on August 5 and currently have mild respiratory symptoms and are in a stable condition.

They are currently quarantining in a medi-hotel.

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