Victoria’s hotel quarantine program has failed to bring in changes that could limit transmission of the coronavirus between returned travellers and staff, experts say.
The state has racked up two cases of resident-to-staff transmissions in one week, in conditions that last year’s Hotel Quarantine Inquiry report slammed as inadequate.
The New Daily understands just one of the hotels in the quarantine program allows its residents access to fresh air – through open windows or balconies – and exercise breaks, despite this being a cornerstone of the report’s recommendations.
Authorities are pointing to airborne transmission as the most likely cause for the two separate transmissions cases, raising concerns over poor air ventilations inside hotel rooms.
Professor Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist at the University of South Australia, said the risk of coronavirus transmission in quarantine hotels was “much lower” when guests had access to fresh air, either through hospital-grade ventilation filters or by opening a window.
That’s because fresh air helps mitigate the risk of aerosol infections, he said.
“These are virus particles that float in the air, and so when you open a door in a hotel room, these particles are going to come out into the corridor,” Professor Esterman told TND.
If there is no air circulation, they’re going to stay in the corridor and any poor soul walking through will get infected.”
The Victorian government has since modified its quarantine program in response to the fresh cases.
From now on, all COVID-19 Quarantine Victoria (CQV) workers will be tested daily, whether they’re on shift or not.
Authorities are also staggering hotel meal deliveries and ordering all workers to wear face shields and masks.
But the changes don’t address epidemiologists’ concerns about poor ventilation.
And it’s not the first time an expert has recommended fresh air for people undergoing hotel quarantine.
In the final report of Victoria’s $5.7 million hotel quarantine inquiry, retired judge Jennifer Coate recommended “daily fresh air and exercise breaks for people placed in quarantine facilities”.
“Fresh air breaks are necessary and will need to be factored into not only the layout of the facility, but also a robust and appropriately developed process for safely facilitating such breaks,” the interim report states.
But that hasn’t happened.
In response to Ms Coate’s interim report, the Victorian government made sweeping changes to its quarantine program, which included daily testing of hotel workers.
However, it remained firm on limiting residents’ access to fresh air.
“Unless there are medical, mental health or compassionate reasons, residents will no longer be able to leave their rooms while isolating or quarantining, including for fresh air or exercise breaks,” reads a media statement from Premier Daniel Andrews’ office.
In a statement to The New Daily, a CQV spokesperson said Victoria’s quarantine program was the “strictest in the country”.
“It’s critical that we reduce the risk of exposure to staff, and ultimately the Victorian community, by limiting the movement of mandatory quarantine residents who do not have a medical reason,” the spokesperson said, adding mental health support was available.
TND understands CQV is reviewing its ventilation requirements with the help of an infectious diseases expert.
Dozens of returned travellers have vented their frustration on social media, detailing “appalling conditions” inside hotel rooms, including unclean air conditioning units that blow dusty particles into the air.
David, a recently returned traveller who wished to remain anonymous, spent 14 days’ quarantine at Melbourne’s Intercontinental Hotel with his partner and young children.
“There were no open windows,” he told The New Daily.
“I had a half hour break in the last two days of being there, but you have to lobby hard.”
Professor Esterman, a long-time proponent of custom-built quarantine hotels in regional areas, questioned why it has taken so long to prioritise adequate air ventilation and fresh air for returned travellers.
“The issue is, the hotels are not purpose-built for quarantining. They’re almost the opposite – no open windows, no good ventilation and no rapid air changes,” he said.
“The big question now is, why are we still doing things that we know aren’t well designed for it? Surely there’s a better way of doing quarantine, so why haven’t we done it?”
Professor Esterman pointed to the Howard Springs quarantine facility in Darwin – where travellers can walk around outside their rooms – as a model example.
He suggested the government invest in building similar, purpose-built facilities in each state and territory given quarantine will likely continue operating in 2022 and beyond, regardless of Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine uptake.
“It’s going to cost a lot of money to build these facilities, but how much does a lockdown cost? Billions,” he said.
“It’s a false economy to say it’s too expensive to build them.”
Mr Andrews and the Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan, have spoken favourably of purpose-built quarantine facilities if they could be shown to work.
Both said they would raise the issue of further improvements to hotel quarantine at national cabinet when federal, state and territory leaders meet on Friday.
Decisions about home-based quarantine model and fresh air breaks in quarantine are also among the inquiry recommendations that are expected to be considered by national cabinet.