Immunologist Shalin Naik was one of several punters at Collingwood brewery Stomping Ground the Monday after Christmas.
Just a week later, he received a text from the pub telling him he’d attended at the same time as a confirmed coronavirus case — but it would take another two days before health authorities reached out.
“It was a text addressed to the wrong name. Someone called Emma, instead of me,” Dr Naik said.
Dr Naik would go on to receive two phone calls from contact tracers that day, but says they ultimately created more concerns than answers.
“She was reading from a script basically — she didn’t even know what exposure site we were talking about,” he said.
“As far as she was concerned I was a close contact of someone.”
Conflicting information between both calls was also a source of frustration for Dr Naik, who was told during the first phone call that he only needed to provide authorities with the details of contacts he’d seen in the two days prior to testing negative — advice the second interviewer was unaware of.
“It’s not her fault, she was just reading from a script — but it felt like I was the one having to tell her the advice.”
‘I could’ve set off a whole new pandemic’
Unlike Dr Naik, Ann Stevens and healthcare worker Amanda, who does not want her surname used, have yet to be contacted by the Department of Health and Human Service (DHHS), days after attending public exposure sites and providing their contact details.
For Ms Stevens, it was the European Bier Cafe on December 28, while Amanda was at Left Bank Melbourne in Southbank on Christmas Day.
On Wednesday, Victoria’s COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said public exposure sites are “ranked in terms of priority based on the positive cases going there, the time spent there, the nature of the exposure site”.
According to the DHHS site, patrons who visited Stomping Ground and Left Bank must get tested and quarantine for 14 days, regardless of the result, while those who visited the European Bier Cafe are only required to quarantine until they test negative.
“We will be triaging that, we will absolutely be aiming to contact those positive cases or those contacts, where we have records of those contacts,” Mr Weimar said.
“They’ll be contacted within 24 hours of getting hold of that information.”
But still waiting days on, Ms Stevens is troubled at the lack of communication from the DHHS.
“Thinking about the number of places I’ve been, I could’ve set off a whole new pandemic,” Ms Stevens said.
“It’s a horrible feeling to think you could make somebody else sick.”
‘Stressful’ period while waiting for advice
While Stomping Ground remains closed as it undergoes a deep clean, a spokesperson for the pub said the team was “proud” that their COVID-safe plan was “well and truly over and above the initial advice”.
And it’s not the only venue taking on the role of contact tracing itself.
Like Stomping Ground, nearby Abbotsford pub Bodriggy also got in touch with patrons directly after confusion surrounding the contact-tracing process.
Listed as a public exposure site, anyone who visited the venue between 2:50pm and 5:30pm on December 28 must get tested immediately and quarantine for 14 days.
Co-owner Peter Walsh estimated about 280 patrons were in and out of Bodriggy during that two-and-half-hour window.
After some uncertainty about whether the DHHS or venues were responsible for informing patrons, he ended up contacting patrons through the venue’s QR database first to be safe.
“There was a 24-hour period where it was kind of stressful because no-one could really tell me anything,” Mr Walsh said.
Mr Walsh found out Bodriggy had been listed as an exposure site through social media, and said it took hours for him to eventually get through to DHHS.
During that time, the health advice for people who visited Bodriggy changed, and Mr Walsh said it took a follow-up conversation with another member of the Health Department the day after for him to give the proper advice to his staff.
“If I’d been able to get onto that person straight away, it would have been a lot less stressful.”
QR codes help identify close contacts
Over the past week, the DHHS’s list of public exposure sites has been plagued by reports of incorrectly listed dates, times and even venues.
The exposure date for the European Bier Cafe was initially listed as December 21 instead of 28, while on Thursday the advice for patrons who visited Hampton cafe Merrymen was upgraded to include 14 days of quarantine, four days after being initially listed.
“If we’ve got something massively wrong, where we’ve directed a whole bunch of people down the wrong rabbit hole, I think we’ll be upfront about that,” Mr Weimar said.
“Moving at this velocity where we’re making changes and adjustments, it’s not even hour by hour, minute by minute in terms of what’s going on.”
Despite delays from the DHHS in getting in contact with both venues and visitors to public exposure sites, Mr Weimar said on Thursday QR code systems had helped authorities identify close contacts of recent coronavirus cases.
“That is how we have identified 1,300 primary close contacts around the Black Rock outbreak,” Mr Weimar said.
“That is how we’re identifying the 34 people, a lot of close contacts of the Vermont South case.”
But for Dr Naik, most of the credit lies with sites like Stomping Ground for getting in contact first.
“If it was a venue that wasn’t as proactive, that wasn’t diligently checking the media, we wouldn’t have known,” Dr Naik said.