The whole nation needs to lift its game when it comes to venue check-ins, health experts have warned, as Melbourne faces the potential of another lockdown as contract tracers rush to work out how far a new coronavirus case has spread.
In addition to COVID-19 check-ins, epidemiologists also urged governments to make major changes to fix the hotel quarantine system, saying the sooner they are implemented, the less likely future outbreaks will be.
QR code check-ins are of key concern to Mary-Louise McLaws, an infectious diseases expert at the University of New South Wales and member of the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 response team.
Professor McLaws said it was likely the virus had spread in Melbourne, after an infected man returned from hotel quarantine in South Australia.
“You would expect the next generation of cases to have occurred,” she said.
“There are six days [where the man could have been contagious] and that is enough for the first generation of cases.
“It’s important to grab them as quickly as possible and that is why we need QR codes.”
Genetic testing confirms virus spread in hotel quarantine
Genomic sequencing testing has confirmed the Melbourne man became infected while in hotel quarantine at Adelaide’s Playford Hotel.
He was staying in a room next to another person who tested positive for the virus before being moved to a medi-hotel. In a statement late on Wednesday, SA Chief Health Officer Nicola Spurrier confirmed the two cases had been genomically linked.
Discharged returned travellers who were housed on level three of the Playford Hotel during the “period of concern” must now isolate for a further two weeks.
Health authorities would be hoping the man’s viral load was low and none of his household members test positive in the coming days, Professor McLaws said.
“We might be OK. But the way to make sure you’re OK without any shutdowns is to be obsessive about your QR codes,” she said.
QR code blitz on businesses
In New South Wales authorities are currently undertaking a QR code blitz, with officials visiting businesses to check they are being diligent about gathering the crucial information, after the state recorded a 25 per cent dip in check-ins.
NSW contact tracers are still working to find the missing source who infected a Sydney man last week, which prompted the state to implement tougher restrictions.
One of the major issues behind the outbreak was the low number of check-ins at the XOPP restaurant in Sydney’s CBD, NSW Minister for Customer Service Victor Dominello has said.
“We are still living in a pandemic and now is not the time to be complacent. We must remain vigilant,” Mr Dominello told The New Daily.
“QR codes provide contact tracers with rapid information and keep the community safe and the economy open.”
When asked by TND, the Victorian Health Department could not provide specific figures around the use of QR codes, nor has it said if it will launch a similar blitz.
Victoria’s Health Minister Martin Foley on Wednesday said contact tracers were scrambling to find people who dined at the Curry Vault restaurant exposure site and did not sign in.
“The challenges at that site … frankly the QR code, whilst it was in place, wasn’t widely taken up by all the patrons,” Mr Foley said.
“This is a reminder that the quality and the speed of the public health response is directly linked to the record-keeping that operators and customers use.”
There are growing concerns over the potential for a super-spreader event in Melbourne after hundreds of people were potentially exposed to the positive man on a train ride from Flinders Street to Craigieburn on Friday night after his trip coincided with the end of an AFL game between Richmond and Geelong.
Clare Southerton from the Centre for Social Research in Health at the University of New South Wales said it was “normal” for people to drop the ball on QR codes.
“When we feel like it is less of a threat, when we don’t have case numbers in the news, we don’t have COVID as much on our mind,” Dr Southerton said.
Making checking-in as simple and easy as possible will help boost compliance, she said.
“If it becomes totally mindless, we get used to different technologies,” Dr Southerton said.
Hotel quarantine fixes
Landing. Shedding. Leaking. Community transmission. Lockdown. Rinse and repeat.
By now, we know how this goes. But as COVID-19 strains mutate, get stronger and threaten to send us all into our homes again, many are calling for a better approach to hotel quarantine.
Professor McLaws and Deakin University epidemiology chair Catherine Bennett said easy changes could be made to the system to make it much safer, with more frequent testing of those flying into Australia and better ventilation in hotel quarantine both deemed essential.
Increasing the testing frequency of returned travellers “helps identify people who have been incubating viruses but have no symptoms sooner, enabling them to be relocated to health hotels”, Professor Bennett said.
Professor McLaws said without more testing the hotel system would continue to leak.
“You don’t know what you’re dealing with unless you test, test, test,” Professor McLaws said.
She said rapid antigen testing needed to be covered by the Medicare rebate scheme so states could use the kits to test people on day one before they arrive at a quarantine hotel.
After testing, Professor Bennett said states and territories also needed to be constantly cross-checking to ensure systems are working well, and updating processes as soon as new evidence or advice identifies safer ways of doing things.
And the rooms and corridors of quarantine hotels need to be ventilated adequately, she said.
“Remove the common corridor, or at least ventilate and filter this area as a priority and establish negative pressure in rooms to ensure less air spill to the corridor,” Professor Bennett said.