Last Friday, the south-western Victorian town of Colac did not have a single coronavirus case.
A week later, the town is trying to stop one of Victoria’s biggest clusters.
The locals are calling for lockdown. The shire’s MP says the health department has left them high and dry. Rumours are running rampant.
Melburnians with parents in the area are calling them, panicked, and saying “Do you have a mask? Don’t go to the shops”.
With no official direction, the town has started shutting down.
Between Friday night and Wednesday morning, Colac had 27 positive COVID cases.
Nearly half are understood to be linked to the Australian Lamb Company meat processing cluster, where the outbreak started.
And there are growing concerns infections are getting out of control.
Local Liberal MP Richard Riordan, accused health authorities of leaving the area high and dry, saying contact tracing had been too slow.
“There’s been no contact tracing. The Department of Health has a nimbleness of a glacier. This is the problem,” he told The New Daily.
“The first person had been at work on the Thursday previous, then wasn’t feeling well, got tested on Monday and got his result back on Friday.
“That delay has allowed the spread to continue.
“NSW has fewer active cases, diagnosis than what Colac has. Contact tracing in a country town should be the easiest thing possible.
“We’ve got people here having to self-contact trace. People don’t know what they need to do.”
DHHS did not reply to requests for comment.
The Australian Lamb Company abattoir where the outbreak began has 718 employees from Colac and the surrounding area.
They’ve all been forced into isolation and tested – so far 13 workers have been infected with the virus.
“ALC has closed its operations in Colac for at least 14 days,” a spokesperson said.
“We are continuing to work with health authorities, government and community leaders to ensure all necessary steps are taken to reduce the risk of further transmission.
“Disruption to meat supply has also been kept to a minimum due to some of our operations being moved to an alternative facility.”
Contact tracers are investigating if this cluster came from another abattoir, JBS in Brooklyn in Melbourne’s west, where a worker may have passed on the virus to a relative who works for ALC.
Colac Otway Shire Mayor Jason Schram said his community had been managing the situation itself.
“When we got up Friday morning there were zero cases in Colac. We hadn’t had a case in six months,” Cr Schram said.
“We got an indication someone had tested positive Friday evening. It’s gone from there.
“We’ve had to take it upon ourselves. Our local hospital has had to run our own testing and contract tracing regimen. It’s been very difficult.
“We didn’t initially have a phone call from anyone, government or DHHS, in the last 24 hours we’ve had contact from them.
“I’ve obviously been critical of the initial response. We’ve started to get a response from the state government on Wednesday.”
Cr Schram wants the Victorian government to impose a stage-three lockdown in the area.
“Initially I called for a two-week lockdown. We had gone from zero and we’re in a small town … it doesn’t take long for everyone to be affected,” he said.
On Tuesday, Premier Daniel Andrews said he had no immediate plans to lock down Colac, but it remained an option.
“I think that provided people follow the advice that they’ve been given, then we can limit the spread of the virus there,” Mr Andrews said.
“Having said that, though, these things can change, and we‘ll be monitoring that daily based on the numbers and based on the advice that (Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton) provides to me.”
Meanwhile, several businesses have closed and the council has closed the library and customer service centre.
Trinity College Colac closed on Monday after a student tested positive, but state and primary schools have remained open.
Parents have responded by withdrawing their children, with 70 per cent reportedly not attending school.
Resident Teresa Robertson said the community was anxious but had come out to support everyone.
“Yesterday I had to go into Colac to do some shopping, I was so impressed with the wonderful response from our local community,” Ms Robertson said.
The streets were virtually empty, those out were standing 1.5 metres apart, and most people wore face masks.
“Basically we’ve gone into this automatic lockdown. People are so aware of the serious of the situation,” she said.
“It’s grassroots. People aren’t waiting to see the local or state government to decide. We’re just doing it. I’m really proud.”