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“It happens all the time”: Contact tracing veteran reveals lockdown ‘lie’ was “not exceptional”

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EXCLUSIVE | An unofficial guide to contact tracing is prominently displayed on a fridge door in SA Health’s Communicable Disease Control Branch office, headlined by a primary rule: “Everybody lies.”

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The list is derived from a “humorous” farewell speech given by sexual health physician and former Senior Consultant of Sexual Health Russell Waddell, who retired from CDCB in September.

Waddell worked in the unit from 2011 after a long career as Clinical Director of STD Services at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, in which capacity he supervised the training program for contact tracers.

Approached by InDaily, he confirmed the first of “Russell’s Rules” for contact tracing, as displayed at CDCB, is that “they lie” – a turn of phrase he emphasised was derived from a “humorous talk I’ve given in the past”.

“People just don’t always give you the truth – not because they’re deliberately lying but because they have different priorities to you [and] that’s why it’s important to establish rapport,” he said.

He said rules were contained in “quite a good after-dinner talk”, in which ‘They Lie’ was “a facetious line, just to remind people that you don’t always get the truth”.

“I used the word ‘lie’ in the talk, not to denigrate people but to remember that people may always have a reason for keeping something back,” he told InDaily.

The list of rules contained in the speech were since printed and posted in the SA Health office.

“I’ve been doing [contact tracing] for a long time – I teach the students that come through the clinics,” Waddell said.

“I’m not really denigrating people by saying ‘they lie’ [but] they never really give you the whole truth.”

The insight is significant given the alleged “lie” – as Premier Steven Marshall has put it several times – of a man working in the Stamford medi-hotel, who did not disclose to authorities that he also worked at the Woodville Pizza Bar.

Instead, he initially said he ordered a pizza from there, before changing his story to say he picked it up himself from the pizzeria – a key location in the Parafield COVID cluster now implicated in the case of a Woodville High School student who last night tested positive.

Marshall last week declared the 36-year-old Spanish man, in SA on a graduate visa, “deliberately misled our contact tracing team” with a story that “didn’t add up” – a story he initially blamed for the Government’s decision to implement a six-day statewide lockdown.

“We now know that they lied,” he said on Friday.

“To say that that I am fuming about the actions of this individual is an absolute understatement – the selfish actions of this individual have put our whole state in a very difficult situation… his actions have affected businesses, individuals, family groups and is completely and utterly unacceptable.

“I will not let the disgraceful conduct of a single individual keep SA in these circuit-breaker conditions one day longer than is necessary.”

Police Commissioner Grant Stevens has repeatedly restated that the misleading information triggered the stay-at-home order, saying: “Had this person been truthful to the contact tracing teams, we would not have gone into a six-day lockdown.”

However, Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier has since adopted a more measured tone, insisting “there was a range of information that I draw upon when I provide that sort of advice”, and seizing upon Stevens’ comment that the Spaniard’s misleading information was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

But Waddell, asked whether the pizza worker was an exception in contact tracing, today told InDaily: “He’s not – at all.”

“He’s not exceptional – it happens all the time,” he said.

“People omit something.”

He said the general issue wasn’t necessarily “lying” but a different “perception of reality”.

“They always keep something back,” he said.

While this rule was a given when dealing with people’s sexual histories, Waddell noted “when I moved from STD up to CDCB in 2011, I thought Contact Tracing up there would be a piece of cake… but to my surprise, it was just as difficult”.

He cites examples of tracing meningococcal cases, saying “young teenagers don’t want to tell you where they’ve been [and] they’re very, very cagey about where they’ve been and who they’ve been talking to”.

“Epidemiologists start salivating when they get a party where they know who was there, and a small little group of people and they know what everybody ate,” he explained.

“But the tricky part is finding out who prepared the food that was brought – everyone is always very reluctant to dob someone in.”

In contact tracing, Waddell said, “you are always re-evaluating information… and if something doesn’t fit, you go back and revisit it”.

He said the key to contact tracing was to “establish rapport so that you try to ensure most of the information you get is accurate”, but that often “when you’re looking at the bigger picture, something doesn’t fit for a variety of reasons”.

“Where were they on what day? People get their days wrong all the time,” he said.

“You know you’re not going to get all the information first up.”

He said he would like to see “some of these journalists do a seven-day food history” to appreciate how difficult it is for people interviewed to recall specific information.

Waddell suggested “this 12-hour media cycle” in recent weeks might have contributed to last week’s events, saying “the department is then put under a lot of pressure to get things, to try and feed the media”.

“I wonder whether the pressure for making decisions and all the rest of it [meant] they rushed into it a bit,” he said.

Which brings him to the last of Russell’s Rules – that “50 per cent of what you read in the media is wrong, and the other 50 per cent is bullshit”.

“When I say ‘media’, it includes social media, which is 90 per cent wrong and 10 per cent bullshit,” he noted, adding that “even with scientific literature you have to be very careful”.

Waddell said in last week’s case, “clearly someone was suspicious and when they went back and checked he ‘fessed up”.

The Spaniard has since released a statement through migration lawyer Scott Jelbert from Camena Legal and Migration, who said his client was “extremely remorseful and deeply sorry for any part his conduct played in any unnecessary lock-down actions”.

“He did not foresee or intend that things might unfold as they have,” continued the statement, released late on Monday.

“I am however instructed that some information is not fair, accurate or complete, notwithstanding the State Government’s comments, and he is concerned he has been all but publicly named.”

Marshall has maintained his position since Friday that “providing false and misleading information to an investigation which involves a global pandemic is a very, very serious issue” and that “quite frankly I strongly believe there have got to be consequences”.

“We do not want to see this behaviour,” he said on Saturday.

“It’s very important for people to understand that when they’re interviewed by CDCB as part of a contact tracing exercise that they must provide full information.”

The Government has been hiring university students to assist their contact tracing program since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and continues to do so.

A University of Adelaide spokesperson said today: “Earlier this year, the University’s Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences was asked by SA Health to raise awareness among final-year medical students that SA Health was looking to hire some of them as contact tracers during the pandemic.”

The said several final-year medical students – who have since graduated – “took up that offer and contributed to tracing efforts during the ‘first wave’”.

“Recently, SA Health again approached the Faculty to assist in raising awareness of a similar opportunity among our cohort of newly graduated medical students,” the university said.

“We are not yet aware of anyone taking up that offer.

“Given that – if they have – their employment is with SA Health, we encourage you to contact their employer about those arrangements.”

InDaily has contacted SA Health for comment.

Waddell said the university cohort were “very good people” who contributed to the contact tracing effort.

However, he said, “the best contact tracers-  if I was to employ someone – would be a hairdresser”.

“They’re able to establish rapport with their clients – and that’s the key,” he said.

“It’s all about the relationship between you and the interviewee – and they’re able to establish rapport with people and to question them without being snoopy.”

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