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SA's new quarantine system to be tested tomorrow as overseas flights prepare landing

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UPDATED: Plane-loads of returning Australians arriving in Adelaide this week will be forced to quarantine at a temporary medi-hotel facility if they test positive for COVID-19, despite past state government assurances of a stand-alone site in the wake of the Parafield cluster.

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It comes as South Australia recorded no new coronavirus cases for the ninth consecutive day, with the number of active cases in the state now down to two.

Health Minister Stephen Wade fronted cameras this afternoon to explain why the State Government’s previously touted “eight-point plan” to stop the coronavirus leaking out of medi-hotels and into the community has not been implemented ahead of tomorrow’s scheduled arrival of 72 passengers from Singapore.

Premier Steven Marshall said last month that the plan, which involves establishing a stand-alone quarantine facility for all COVID-positive cases, would be implemented “immediately”, with a view to have the steps in place before South Australia resumed accepting international flights.

The plan also committed the State Government to ask the Commonwealth to impose mandatory testing of all inbound passengers before they board flights to Australia.

But despite tomorrow’s scheduled flight, the State Government is yet to establish a stand-alone quarantine facility or discuss mandatory passenger testing with the National Cabinet.

It instead announced over the weekend that all overseas arrivals who test positive for the virus would be accommodated on two levels of the Pullman Hotel, to be monitored by SA Police and staffed 24/7 by SA Health nurses.

Authorities will also ramp up testing, introducing a third test on day six of quarantine for all overseas arrivals.

“I do not want to be looking back in decades to come ashamed of the fact that we left thousands of Australians stranded in COVID-infested countries,” Wade said this afternoon.

“The eight-point plan was clearly something that was going to be implemented over time, but the central commitment of our plan was to establish a dedicated facility – all of the key attributes of that dedicated facility have been honoured.

“The elements of the plan clearly had to be implemented over time, discussions with the AHPPC (Australian Health Principal Protection Committee), discussions with the national cabinet take time, and rolling out things like overseas testing of incoming travellers will take time.”

The Pullman Hotel is only being used as an interim site while SA Health continues to search for a permanent quarantine facility, after abandoning a previous plan to convert the old Wakefield Hospital due to concerns about the building’s ventilation.

Deputy chief public health officer Dr Emily Kirkpatrick told reporters this afternoon that the Government was considering converting several other sites, but she could not reveal where they were because the Government was still in confidential negotiations with the property owners.

Wade told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning that the two-level facility was “in a physical sense the same” as the rest of the Pullman medi-hotel, which would continue to accommodate other overseas arrivals who are required to undergo 14-days of mandatory quarantine, regardless of whether their initial test comes back negative.

But he said the dedicated floors would be staffed and managed differently to provide “significantly-enhanced safety measures” to contain the spread of the virus.

“There will be spacing in the rooms, there’ll be CCTV monitoring on each floor, there will be 24/7 nursing care in the positive areas, 24/7 mental health care, a dedicated SAPOL and nursing team stationed on the floors,” he said.

“Unlike the other floors of the Pullman, there will be no private security involved.

“The workers who are in the team – the SAPOL and SA Health workers who work on the floors – will not work in another high-risk environment and we’ll be using contract cleaning to do the post-cleaning of each room.”

Staff who work on the two floors would be banned from working second jobs at other medi-hotels or high-risk sites such as hospitals or aged-care facilities, but they could work elsewhere, including at pizzerias.

Wade said the State Government was still waiting on advice from the AHPPC, but its view was that medi-hotel workers should be allowed to work second jobs.

“Our position is still that we do not believe that it is reasonable to expect that people who work in medi-hotels basically live in a quarantine bubble,” he said.

“We believe that moving people into a dedicated facility significantly reduces the risk profile in the medi-hotels.”

It comes after an infected overseas traveller quarantining at Peppers medi-hotel in Waymouth Street transmitted the virus to a security guard who was stationed in the corridor outside his room, sparking last month’s Parafield cluster.

A staffer at Peppers medi-hotel who also worked at Woodville Pizza Bar is thought to have transmitted the virus to the broader community.

Wade said this morning that it was unreasonable to expect people who work in medi-hotels to live in a “quarantine bubble”.

“Our position is still that we do not believe that it is reasonable to expect that people who work in medi-hotels basically live in a quarantine bubble,” he said.

“We believe that moving people into a dedicated facility significantly reduces the risk profile in the medi-hotels.”

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced last month that his Government would ban all medi-hotel staff from working second jobs following an inquiry into the eastern state’s problematic quarantine system.

All medi-hotel staff in Victoria are now tested daily and work in bubbles to ensure that they only have contact with a limited number of other people.

Wade last week said that he hadn’t read the Victorian inquiry report.

“With all due respect to Victoria, I’m going to continue to rely on South Australia’s public health team,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning, when asked whether South Australia’s quarantine system would be comparatively weaker.

“They have forensically looked at what happened in the Pepper’s Hotel situation, they’ve suggested a whole range of enhancements, which will be particularly expressed through the dedicated facility.”

Meanwhile, the Tasmanian Government has announced it would pay part-time medi-hotel workers full-time rates, reducing their need for second jobs.

Tasmanian workers would also receive an additional payment in recognition of the role they fulfil.

Australian Medical Association state president Dr Chris Moy told InDaily that banning medi-hotel staff from working second jobs was not “black and white”.

“There is no easy solution to this,” he said.

“There’s actually been a serious resourcing and person-power issue of getting enough people to do this job and that’s not understood.

“Ideally, you would have people not even have contact with their family and solely do this job, but then I don’t think you’ll get people to do it.”

Moy said hotel quarantine was the “biggest risk” for COVID-19 spreading into the community, but separating positive cases and the staff who care for them in a dedicated facility helped reduce that risk.

“Ultimately, there can never be total assurances with hotel quarantine, but you can lower the odds (of infection),” he said.

“What is being suggested – particularly if it’s a separate facility – would be by far the best, but doing what they’re doing will also reduce the risk because they’re separating out the high-risk individuals and then basically placing them with separate dedicated staff.

“This is going to be an improvement but there’s no such thing as bullet-proof.”

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