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Secret pizza business: What authorities aren't telling us about SA's COVID cluster

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Health authorities have conceded details about how SA’s COVID cluster spread to a pizza bar in Woodville – sparking a statewide lockdown – remain secret, with SA Health’s CEO disputing that the virus was spread via medi-hotel workers holding multiple jobs.

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The Woodville Pizza Bar became a hot-spot during the Parafield cluster last month, when it emerged two medi-hotel workers – a security guard at the Peppers Hotel and a Spanish visa holder who worked in the kitchen of the Stamford – both worked at the pizzeria while infectious.

A Woodville schoolgirl also later returned a positive test but while health authorities believed she was linked to the pizza bar, they did not specify in what way.

In an interview with InDaily, published today, SA Health CEO Chris McGowan disputed the assertion – long implied by chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier – that the virus spread to the Woodville Pizza Bar because a medi-hotel security guard was also working there.

McGowan rejected the notion – recommended in an interim report into Victoria’s quarantine breakdown – that medi-hotel workers should be employed as dedicated government staff to dissuade them from moonlighting elsewhere, disputing the suggestion that such a policy would have prevented the outbreak at Woodville.

But he declined to elaborate on why he did so, saying: “Well, there’s some things about that which I can’t say, that aren’t public.”

Asked by InDaily whether it was incorrect to suggest that the Woodville mini-cluster could be linked back to a Peppers hotel security guard who worked a second job at the pizza bar, he said he would “leave it at, you know, [that] I know more about that case than you do”.

“And just to say [that] that’s not necessarily the case,” he said.

The secrecy adds a new layer of intrigue around the Parafield cluster, for which McGowan says authorities still have “no real operating hypothesis” as to how the virus breached their medi-hotel resulting in 33 new COVID-19 cases.

McGowan suggested Spurrier’s initial theory that the virus was transmitted by surface contact – the first patient was initially thought to be to a hotel cleaner but later discovered to be one of two security guards who fell ill – had never been proved.

“No, we don’t know what it is… we don’t like the fact that we don’t know,” he said.

“The CCTV doesn’t tell us that there’s been any obvious breach… so there’s no real operating hypothesis for how that disease happened.

“It would be great if there was because… that would be very comforting for us – we take great comfort in discovering that stuff.”

The Woodville Pizza Bar was also prominent in the Government’s decision to impose a statewide lockdown -later abandoned after three days – after a Stamford kitchen worker initially told contact tracers he had ordered a pizza from the business.

He later admitted he had instead been working there.

At the time, Spurrier told reporters the case was perplexing because health authorities had no way of linking seemingly unrelated cases at the Peppers and Stamford hotels.

It was the Woodville Pizza Bar that she claimed “made the link”.

“One of the [infected] security guards in the [Peppers] medi-hotel, like many people, had more than one job – and worked part time at that pizza bar,” said Spurrier last month.

“And the case we got last night also worked in the pizza bar at the same time as the person who was at the Stamford went and got a pizza – so we absolutely have linked all of that.

“We’ll get the genomics to prove it, but we are absolutely certain with our history-taking that that’s what’s happened.”

As part of an aborted investigation into the Stamford worker’s alleged “lie”, SAPOL detectives spent several days viewing CCTV from the Peppers Hotel.

McGowan declined to comment on the inquiry, except to say “it cleat [that] when people call contract tracers, the only use of that information is for the purposes of public health”.

“And that’s a very important point – if we don’t do that, people won’t have the confidence to call,” he said.

“And if they don’t have the confidence to call, or be totally disclosing in those conversations, we miss where this outbreak might be going.”

His comments come as Health Minister Stephen Wade today said a revised quarantine arrangement would still likely allow medi-hotel workers to moonlight in second jobs, rather than paying them a higher wage to dissuade them from doing so.

“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 told ABC radio.

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

InDaily‘s full interview with McGowan can be read HERE.

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