Western Australians are enduring a nervous wait for COVID-19 test results following confirmation a quarantine guard who has the virus is infected with the highly contagious UK strain.
The guard is known to have visited 16 venues after being infected, raising fears that additional cases will emerge over the days to come.
Scorching heat has made it more difficult for locals and visitors to queue for tests but authorities have extended site opening hours and have urged people to brave the conditions for their “civic duty”.
High temperatures are adding to discomfort over mandatory masks and orders not to leave home except for essentials and for one hour of exercise within a 5km radius. People in Perth, Peel and South West regions must wear a mask even while walking or jogging.
Temperatures are tipped to hit 37C in the capital on Tuesday, fuelling concern over the bushfire raging in the Perth Hills.
We know it’s hot weather, but you can’t just simply say I’m going to drive 25 kilometres to the beach,’’
– WA Police Commissioner Chris Dawson
Race to trace the path of the virus
It was still not clear by Tuesday morning how the guard contracted the virus in the first place, with the man in his 20s telling police he was adamant he had not entered any hotel rooms during his shifts at quarantine sites.
He last worked at the Sheraton Four Points hotel in Perth on January 27 and tested positive to COVID-19 on Saturday night.
The man also had another job working as a ride-share driver but police investigating his movements believe he had not driven passengers since January 22 (before the time he likely became infected).
Authorities expect most of the guard’s close contacts will have been re-tested by Wednesday. The results of those tests will be used to determine whether or not the lockdown could be lifted as scheduled at 6pm on Friday.
So far 13 close contacts have tested negative. Another 53 close contacts were continuing to self-isolate while awaiting their results.
Eleven “high-risk” contacts, including the man’s three housemates, have been placed into hotel quarantine as a precaution.
“If they’re (tests of close contacts) still coming up as negative, that would be a good sign that this person wasn’t a particularly effective spreader,” WA’s chief health officer Andy Robertson said on Monday.
“And that is what we’re not quite sure on.”
Australian Medical Association (AMA) WA president Andrew Miller said it was “50-50” as to whether the state would need to extend the lockdown.
“We’re hoping for donut days throughout the week – all zeroes – and then perhaps that will be enough,” Dr Miller said.
“But we will know by then whether we’re looking at a cluster or clusters which will require a longer period of time.
We know that each cluster usually generates about three weeks worth of cases before it is able to be shut down.’’
So far no new local cases of the virus have been detected in Western Australia since the hotel quarantine breach plunged metropolitan Perth and two nearby regions into a strict five-day lockdown.
WA Police have launched a major probe into how the breach came about, with the state’s police commissioner, Chris Dawson, describing the next five days as “critical” for limiting “the movement of people in the area where this case has been out and about”.
- See the latest coronavirus statistics from WA here
The government of Premier Mark McGowan has denied initial speculation that the virus spread through the air conditioning system of the Four Points by Sheraton, where the guard worked.
The guard is known to have been on duty on the same floor as a quarantine case known to be carrying the UK variant which is said to be between 50 to 70 per cent more transmissible than other strains.
“We don’t know from which person in the hotel he acquired it, so that’s the further testing we are trying to work out,” Mr McGowan said.
“The air conditioning is not a recycled system inside the hotel … it vents to the atmosphere.
“The advice we have is the air conditioning system is safe and there is no evidence that there is any problem with the air conditioning.”
Authorities have implored West Australians not to repeat the scenes of chaos in supermarkets and pharmacies that erupted within hours of the lockdown announcement.
Meanwhile, Dr Miller has hit out at the government’s handling of the quarantine process.
“Mining companies run at a very high standard compared to the rest of the community in terms of monitoring their workforces,” the state’s AMA president told The West Australian.
“In fact, I would be a bit provocative and say if the mining companies had been running the quarantine we might not be in this situation.
“The fly-in, fly-outs certainly undertake their own testing regime and it’s very disappointing we weren’t having that level of testing being done in hotel quarantine.”
Travellers from WA are now subject to tough restrictions and quarantine in every state and territory.
In the case of West Australian MPs who travelled to Canberra, however, exemptions have been given to avoid quarantine and attend parliament in person.
Travellers coming from Queensland and Victoria are able to enter WA without self-quarantine but subject to strict conditions.
- Read the latest on travel restrictions here