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Medi-hotel SOS: Call for volunteers as investigation continues

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Health authorities say they “may never know” how COVID-19 escaped an Adelaide medi-hotel – sparking the Parafield cluster and last week’s statewide lockdown – as InDaily can reveal an “urgent” call for Government staff to volunteer in the stretched quarantine facilities.

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SA Health investigators continue to pore over CCTV footage in a bid to determine the cause of the hotel outbreak that spawned the Parafield Cluster, which rose to 29 late yesterday after a couple recently returned from Nepal, staying at the Peppers medi-hotel and previously believed to have caught the virus overseas, were found to be infected with the “same strain of COVID as the Parafield Cluster”.

Chief Public Health Officer Professor Nicola Spurrier said: “Those people have in fact contracted that not from coming overseas, but actually from their stay at the Peppers hotel.”

The revelation heaped increased urgency on ongoing efforts to pinpoint how the virus was initially transmitted from a UK traveller staying in the hotel to staff – with Spurrier today revealing the first person infected was not, as previously thought, a female cleaner, but one of two male security guards working at the hotel.

“It’s fairly clear that the first staff member infected at the hotel is one of the security guards and not the cleaner, and we can tell that by knowing who was on what floor at what time,” she said.

“We’ve been able to clarify that person was not only working on the floor where the person from the UK was situated, but also worked on the floor at the right sort of timing for when the other couple who have come from Nepal were…

“It means we can link that in terms of time and place, that sort of epidemiological link.”

Last week Spurrier told media she had not had the opportunity “to go through, minute-by-minute, how someone may have got the infection”, but insisted at the time: “What we do know is that it was a cleaner who was at back of house and that appears to have been the first case in this whole cycle.”

Spurrier today said she was “coming to realise [the virus] is even more transmissible and more contagious than I probably even imagined”.

Responding to those comments, and a similar statement from Spurrier yesterday, University of South Australia epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman told InDaily: “The problem is she’s underestimated it, rather than it’s more contagious than anyone thought.”

“We’ve known from the very start that this is a highly contagious virus, that’s all there is to it,” Esterman said.

“It’s not a new virus or a new strain of virus, it’s just a very contagious virus.”

While Spurrier today said there was more work to do after “an initial look at still photographs of the CCTV”, she was confident there had been “no significant breaches” of protocol at the Peppers medi-hotel.

“We’ve had to go through detailed staff and roster list to ascertain who was where at particular times [and] they need to do a much more thorough review of the whole video sequence… but on the basis of the still photos I can absolutely confirm that nobody was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that’s the most important thing,” Spurrier said.

She said investigators now had to probe “subtle details” such as “if people touched their masks or that sort of thing”, potentially transferring the virus to another surface.

“But what’s really clear is there was no significant breaches identified where we could have said ‘yes. that’s definitely how it was transmitted’.

“There were absolutely no incidences of staff going into the travellers’ rooms, and absolutely no inappropriate behaviour at all.”

Spurrier said SA Health had “some working hypotheses about how that security guard and the travellers became infected, but we may never know 100 per cent”.

InDaily can reveal more Government employees have been asked to moonlight at city medi-hotels, after it was yesterday reported that Adelaide Venue Management staff had been “seconded” to work in COVID hotspots.

A bulletin from TAFE Chief Executive David Coltman, seen by InDaily, was sent to all SA staff last Thursday – the first day of the shortlived statewide lockdown.

“At times like this we need to work together support each other and do what we can for the greater community,” Coltman said.

“If you would like to contribute, SA Health has an urgent need for volunteers to support with medi-hotel operations.

“These roles would be hotel sustainment coordinators and medi-hotel runners.”

Hotel sustainment coordinators would be responsible for “coordinating the day-to-day operations of medi-hotels” and were the “coordinating link between clinicians, hotel management, the SA Health state control centre and contractors, such as caterers and cleaners”.

“They will work with hotel management to ensure the hotel functions efficiently with all back-of-house services provided [and] will play a critical role in relationship management, streamlining communication, complaints and issues resolution,” Coltman said.

“They would be required to spend time at the hotel to establish relationships and attend daily meetings.”

Medi-hotel runners would be required to “deliver meals to rooms” as well as “liaising with suppliers and couriers and following up on any other hotel back-of-house support activities”.

“Employees who take on these duties need to be comfortable supporting any hotel operations,” he said.

Coltman told InDaily he had “received a really positive response from staff to undertake training and provide support to the COVID-19 situation”.

However, asked whether he was comfortable with TAFE staff assitng in the facilities given subsequent revelations, he said: “Those who volunteered to support the work at the medi-hotels were not required for these roles and have since been re-directed to assist with other important work in response to the COVID-19 activity.”

At an estimates hearing today, Premier Steven Marshall confirmed InDaily’s revelation “that some casual staff members of Adelaide Venue Management were also working as casual employees within the hotel quarantine arrangements”.

“They were just working in their own capacity, and of course they are quite within their rights to do so,” he said.

“They were not doing that work in those quarantine hotels as employees of AVM – every casual employee has the ability to seek additional work over and above the casual shifts that they have at AVM… because of the stay-at-home order, the number of shifts that were available to casual employees at AVM would have reduced significantly.”

He also confirmed AVM had been contracted to supply meals to the city quarantine facilities, which were delivered to loading bays by staff, who were given extra PPE training.

Hotels Association boss Ian Horne said potential reputational damage stemming from the emergence of the Parafield cluster would be “high in the mind of all of the hotels” that signed up to be quarantine facilities.

“This is run by SAPOL and SA Health, so the hotels provide the staff, the structures and the physical place and the backup services, but my understanding is there is no decision-making in relation to managing the movement of people – that all falls under the responsibility of SA Health in particular and with the backing-up of SAPOL,” he said.

“It’s very structured and controlled, although it would appear it’s not as controlled as we would have hoped.

“Clearly, there’s something wrong with the process and procedure, but that process is controlled exclusively by SA Health and SAPOL – not the hotel itself.”

Horne said there were about eight medi-hotels operating in Adelaide.

He said the spread of the coronavirus from an overseas traveller to staff at Peppers in Waymouth Street was cause for “legitimate concern”.

“The impact is on everyone and businesses open and close based on what SA Health’s reactions to these things are,” he said.

“I can only assume something in the process has been overlooked, or not followed, or a mistake has been made.

“It can’t be anything else than that.”

“SA Health and SAPOL are all-powerful on this.

The Government today announced changes that would prevent staff working in new quarantine facilities for COVID-positive cases prevented form working in other vulnerable areas.

But Police Commissioner Grant Stevens declared he still believed medi-hotel staff should be allowed to work in second jobs, such as the pizza bar worker who alleged “lie” was blamed for last week’s shutdown.

“At this point, yes,” he said today.

“[But] correspondence has gone to the AHPPC for independent advice on that, and as with everything if the advice comes back that will be considered and we’ll abide by advice of experts in the field.”

He said he was “aware that there have been disciplinary actions taken against some security staff” in the past “based on things like non-compliance with PPE and other activities, but I don’t have details”.

Marshall today insisted that while new action was being taken to improve medi-hotel safety, there would be no independent inquiry until after the pandemic was over and emergency management provisions lifted.

“Let’s be really clear – we have subjected ourselves to that national audit [on medi-hotels] and there’s an investigation into that false and misleading information we’ve received” from the pizza bar worker.

But, he said, an independent inquiry into state emergencies “usually happens after the end of the emergency”.

“With every emergency that occurs, the emergency management council determines who should do that [review] and we’ll look to see if we need different resourcing, different posture, different legislation that would support our response in future”.

But he said it would be a broad inquiry, not specifically focussed on the medi-hotel breakdown.

“It looks at all those aspects – it’s not like we want to try and limit what the reviewer looks into,” he said.

“What I’m saying is that post this event the emergency management council will decide which person will do that independent review, and they’ll look at the entire aspects of the way we’ve manage this coronavirus and if there are any improvements [to make] in the cold hard light of day, we’ll put those in place.”

Medi-hotel guests ‘don’t feel safe’

Peppers medi-hotel guests are now fearing for their safety and wondering how much longer they’ll have to be in quarantine.

They’ve already been forced to re-start their 14 days in quarantine once and they’re worried that might happen again.

Stephen Leaney is on his fourteenth day and is due to finish his extended lockdown next Monday, after returning to Adelaide following a work trip in the US.

“I’m not safe in this environment,” he told InDaily.

“I’m locked in my room and so is everyone else and if we’re still getting infected then we’re not safe in here.

“I was in America for four months in the worst possible country to be in and I did everything right to not contract the virus and yet I come home to my home country and there’s a chance that I can be infected in a hotel, which is just outrageous – it just shouldn’t happen.”

Stephen Leaney in his room at the Peppers city medi-hotel where has been for 14 days
Photo supplied

Leaney flew in on November 11 via Qatar – the same day as the husband and wife travellers who have now tested positive and been linked to the Parafield cluster, and wonders if he was on the same flight.

“I’m pretty stressed at the mismanagement that’s going on here and how it’s being handled,” he said.

“Putting my health and everyone’s health in this hotel at risk.

“Our 14 days are up and they keep extending it by 14 days because the workers coming in here are positive.

“And we’re the ones being punished by getting locked down longer because they’re mismanaging the people coming in here to supposedly look after us.

“And there’s no answer for any of us. It’s becoming so stressful. It’s hard to describe the anxiety and stress that people are feeling.”

He said if the 14-day quarantine period was extended again, “some people are going to be here for 36/38 days, which is just simply inhumane”.

“You can’t keep locking us up for something we have no control over,” he said.

“We should be allowed to be released into home quarantine. There’s 5000 people here in South Australia in home quarantine. There’s no reason why the residents who are in this hotel now why we cannot go home and home-quarantine like everyone else.

“It’s much safer for me to be at home in my own environment which I can control than in this environment where you’ve got so-called guests at this hotel being infected by staff workers.

“It’s not just about getting home and seeing my family it’s about getting home to get out of this place where I can feel safe.”

Leaney said many people in the hotel had no access to fresh air.

“Not everyone has access to an open window to get fresh air,” he said.

“I’m really fortunate I have a balcony. Most people don’t have an open window, they don’t have any fresh air.”

Spurrier said she was confident guests would not have to re-start their quarantine again but couldn’t guarantee it until all staff and guests had been tested and cleared.

She said 75 staff had been tested and cleared overnight – but there were still others to be tested.

“Could it mean that these poor people at Peppers who have already done 14 days and now they’ve got another 14 days of quarantine, does that mean they have to have another? We are very clear that if everything is negative then of course no they won’t,” she said.

“I’d like to see all the tests back.”

Authorities “underestimated” virus

Professor Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist from the University of South Australia said now that a security guard – rather than a cleaner – had been identified as the first infected staff member, it’s “a bit of a mystery” how the virus was transferred.

Authorities today said their analysis of CCTV did not indicate any protocol breach by staff.

“If there’s no security breach and people weren’t allowed outside of their actual room I can’t see how it would have got in then,” he said.

“The only source it could have been then is either through the air system of the hotel, or for anything that’s passed into the room, like food or so on. I can’t see how it could have come in from a security guard unless there’s a breach of some sort.”

Esterman said air-conditioning system transmission was a possibility if there wasn’t a filter system, however he thought more people would have been infected within the hotel if the air-conditioning was to blame.

After discovering that the two quarantined travellers had caught the virus within the medi-hotel, Spurrier yesterday said: “I knew that COVID-19 was highly transmissible – it’s even more transmissible than what I had initially thought.”

We’ve known from the very start that this is a highly contagious virus, that’s all there is to it – it’s not a new virus or a new strain of virus, it’s just a very contagious virus

Remarking on those comments, Esterman said: “The problem is she’s underestimated it, rather than it’s more contagious than anyone thought.”

He said “we’ve known from the very start that this is a highly contagious virus, that’s all there is to it”.

“It’s not a new virus or a new strain of virus, it’s just a very contagious virus,” he said.

“If it is passed on from an individual, if they are someone who is a super-spreader – which is potentially possible – then they are highly infectious as a person.

“Either it’s a group of people who all get infected… a super-spreading event… or it’s an individual who is highly contagious.

“It could be one of those two situations.

“But you can’t call the virus sneaky, the virus is not living, ok? It’s just some inanimate bit of genetic material.”

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