The Howard Springs quarantine facility is dealing with its highest number of positive COVID cases since it began handling repatriation flights last year, according to NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles.
The spike in cases — mostly recorded among arrivals from India — come on the cusp of the upcoming handover of the international quarantine program at Howard Springs from the Commonwealth to NT health authorities.
On Wednesday morning, the Australian Medical Association NT branch president Dr Robert Parker said National Cabinet should look “very seriously” at placing a pause on repatriation flights coming into Howard Springs from India.
“I certainly think they should look at the situation and have a significant look at the risk/benefit of those flights,” Dr Parker said.
Today, NT health authorities announced two more positive COVID cases had been recorded among returned travellers in the Howard Springs facility from India, bringing the total number of positive cases among returned travellers from India to 18 since the weekend.
At a press conference this morning, Ms Fyles said authorities would continue to monitor the Indian outbreak and would be guided by clinical advice.
But Ms Fyles said her government had a “humanitarian responsibility” to repatriate vulnerable Australians and backed the infection control measures at Howard Springs to safely manage the increased positive caseload.
Last week India recorded more than 1.5 million cases of COVID-19, which accounted for nearly a third of the world’s total.
Howard Springs quarantine merger date set
As positive COVID cases rise within Howard Springs, Ms Fyles revealed that the international and domestic quarantine programs at the facility would merge on May 3.
Currently, the Commonwealth’s highly-regarded Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) manages the international quarantine program at Howard Springs, while the NT government manages domestic operations.
Ms Fyles said the integration of the quarantine operations on May 3 would see domestic and international arrivals going “through the same processes and same physical infrastructure”.
“I’m confident that from May 3, that when we bring the facility together as one — it’s not to say on May 3 that AUSMAT will be walking away — it’s from that point that we’ll be working together as one facility and we’ll be making sure that those clinical processes are kept in place whilst we transition the facility to be fully staffed by the NT government,” Ms Fyles said.
Howard Springs handover worries AMA
Speaking on ABC Radio this morning, Dr Robert Parker expressed concerns over the NT government’s reported struggles to recruit enough staff to operate the international quarantine program once the Commonwealth hands over control.
“I think Minister Fyles said in the last couple of days she managed to get 70 staff … they’re looking for 400. I suppose it doesn’t fill me with confidence when there’s been a trickle rather than a flood,” he said.
Dr Parker also said he was concerned about the ability of the NT government to maintain the same “high standard” of infection control within the facility by the AUSMAT team since last October.
At a press conference today, opposition leader Lia Finocchiaro said she had “grave concerns” the Howard Springs quarantine facility would be understaffed or “staffed by under-qualified people” with the region already struggling to fill positions in hospitals.
“The Howard Springs facility presents the greatest risk to the Northern Territory of COVID getting into our community,” she said.
“We know the NT government is already struggling to find six surgeons for the Royal Darwin Hospital and now the emergency department at Katherine Hospital is going to be managed by someone virtually.
“These systemic issues in our healthcare system are only going to be exacerbated by the need to recruit 400 qualified staff.”
However, Ms Fyles moved to allay concerns over her government’s slow recruitment and AUSMAT’s eventual departure, saying that AUSMAT would remain a presence at Howard Springs until NT authorities could safely manage the facility themselves.
“The full transition of the service — it’s not simply that AUSMAT are on a certain day going to walk away and not participate,” Ms Fyles said.
“They will only leave the facility when they believe it is clinically safe to do so. And a number of staff may in fact stay on at the facility but working for the NT government.”
Ms Fyles gave no update to the NT government’s recruitment figures for the facility, but said that recruitment “has gone well” despite the previously reported slow job take-up.
The new cases take the Territory’s total of positive COVID-19 cases to 133.
A total of 6,668 people have arrived in Darwin on repatriation flights to undertake 14 days of mandatory quarantine at the Howard Springs facility since October last year.
The total number of positive coronavirus cases reported in the Territory is 92, with all cases relating to international or interstate travel.
There have been no cases of community transmission.