News State Tasmania Up to 5000 hospital staff, households quarantined in northwest Tasmania
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Up to 5000 hospital staff, households quarantined in northwest Tasmania

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A coronavirus cluster has been linked to hospitals in Tasmania's north-west. Photo: ABC News: Rick Eaves
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The Tasmanian government has closed two hospitals at the centre of a worsening coronavirus outbreak involving 49 cases in the state’s northwest in a bid “to crush this virus at its source”.

At least 1200 hospital staff from two hospitals – and their households of about 4000 people – were placed into quarantine for two weeks on Monday morning as a “super clean” of the facilities is undertaken.

The North West Regional Hospital and North West Private Hospital in Burnie closed at 7am, with the majority of patients transferred to the Mersey Community Hospital at Devonport.

“There will be around 1000 staff, probably closer to 1200, who will be quarantined with their families,” Tasmanian premier Peter Gutwein told reporters on Monday morning.

“That will mean that we will have somewhere between, we expect, 4000 and 5000 people in the north-west that will be quarantined for the next 14 days.

He said the move was “unprecedented”.

“Never before has a premier had to ask a community to do this … the responsibility rests heavy on me in having to make these decisions.

“But I would ask that you work with us. This is the best way that we can get on top of this, that we can stop the spread of this insidious disease, and importantly, that we can save lives.

“We need to ensure that we can crush this virus at its source, and with this outbreak we need to take these steps,” Mr Gutwein said.

State Health Commander Kathryn Morgan-Wicks said the decision to temporarily close the North West Regional Hospital was not taken lightly.

“I want to be clear that closing a hospital is not something that we do lightly and it is something that has not been done in Tasmania in our living memory,” she said.

There has been an increase of 11 new cases, including eight health care workers, one patient and two close contacts of people who previously tested positive, bringing the state’s overall figure to 144.

The ABC reported 72 are linked to the north-west coast and 43 are healthcare workers at the hospitals

Five people have died of the coronavirus in the state.

The state government aims to reopen the hospitals after two weeks. It hopes the emergency department, maternity, cancer and intensive care unit services can return after 72 hours.

Retailers in the northwest have also been hit with tougher restrictions with all shops not providing essential services or goods closed, including Kmart, Target and Harvey Norman. Pharmacies, supermarkets, service stations, newsagents, banks, vets and takeaway food outlets were exempt.

The state recorded its fifth virus death on Sunday.

‘Australia must maintain the pressure’

Meanwhile, Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy told ABC radio on Monday morning the nation was in a good position in the fight against coronavirus but must maintain the pressure.

More than 6300 Australians have been infected with coronavirus and 61 people have died.

Two more deaths were recorded overnight but there were only 33 new cases in the past 24 hours. There are 239 people being treated in hospitals around the country, with 81 in ICU and 35 patients ventilated.

While the coronavirus infection curve is flattening, Professor Murphy says it is still too early to relax strict social distancing rules.

“The scale of measures at the moment are something that we clearly do have to review … but it’s not now, it’s within the next few weeks,” he told ABC radio on Monday.

“I think we need to look at all of the data, look at our preparedness, and the national cabinet will be making a lot of decisions about what if anything can be relaxed in the coming weeks.”

The low number of new infections may be due in part to less COVID-19 testing over the long weekend.

Professor Murphy said he would be very concerned if social restrictions were relaxed before public hospitals were fully prepared and the country had enough personal protective equipment.

“The thing that worries us most at the moment is complacency,” he said.

“Every single community transmission that’s undetected can infect a lot of people, and that’s why it is so important that we do maintain measures for the time being.”

Victoria’s state of emergency extended

Premier Daniel Andrews extended a state of emergency by four weeks to May 11. It was originally due to expire on Monday.

This extension allows the government to keep the strict enforcement of social distancing, isolation and directions from the state’s chief health officer to slow the spread of coronavirus.

“We are aggressively tracing our outbreaks, and making sure this virus does not get away from us,” he said.

“If it does, our health system will simply be overrun and people will die.”

There have been 13 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Victoria overnight, bringing the state’s total to 1281 and 14 people have died.

Some nursing homes have completely banned visits to stop the spread of coronavirus, but Professor Murphy does not agree with that approach.

He said aged care residents should continue welcoming guests, so long as they have no more than two visitors practising social distancing for a short period of time, and not allow children into the facilities.

The federal government has launched contingency measures to ensure older Australians continue to get the care they need during the pandemic.