Covid has broken out of Sydney’s hotel quarantine system four times in the past month as a top health official warns of a worrying surge in infected travellers from overseas.
Both of the city’s major clusters, in Berala to the south-west and Avalon on the northern beaches, have been linked to failures in the system which had largely kept Australia Covid-free for months.
The evidence is most clear with the Berala cluster, where authorities have identified a quarantine transport driver at Patient Zero. Officials said he was infected by a family who had returned to Australia from overseas, despite wearing protective equipment.
The driver unknowingly infected a colleague, who visited the Berala BWS bottle shop while asymptomatic. A BWS staff member was infected, leading to a second bottle shop worker to catch the highly infectious virus.
Ground zero: BWS at Berala, in Sydney’s south-west, is at the centre of the latest Covid cluster – sparked by a patient transport driver unknowingly infected a colleague, who then visited the store when they were suffering no symptoms
Hotel quarantine transport workers wear personal protective equipment (this instance is in Melbourne, above). NSW Health hasn’t specified what equipment the bus driver linked to the BWS outbreak was given
The employees were at the shop each day between December 22 and December 31, sparking fears of a mass outbreak, given more than a thousand customers visited the store on Christmas Eve alone.
The virus has apparently escaped quarantine in Sydney three further times.
A third driver, a Sydney Ground Transport emploeye who ferried around air crew from the airport to their hotel, tested positive on December 16.
Contact tracers said the Avalon cluster strain appeared to be similar to a virus variant detected in a quarantined American traveller who tested positive last month.
However, just how the virus got to Avalon – sparking 148 cases, many of them spread from local pubs – remains unknown. ‘We may never find a link back,’ Dr Chant said.
A cleaner at Darling Harbour’s Novotel quarantine hotel tested positive to the virus on December 2. She has not been linked to any further cases.
NSW has introduced a mask mandate for indoor environments, including public transport and shops, after outbreaks in Berala and Avalon
SYDNEY’S FOUR HOTEL QUARANTINE BREACHES
1. Berala cluster: Quarantine driver is infected while ferrying a family to their hotel. Inadvertently spreads the virus to a colleague, who visited BWS bottle shop on December 20, sparking cluster
2. Avalon cluster: American traveller tests positive to virus in hotel quarantine in early December. Virus strain in northern beaches is similar to her case, unclear how it got there
3. Sydney Ground Transport driver is infected while ferrying air crew. Tests positive December 16
4. Novotel quarantine hotel cleaner is infected on December 2. No further cases
Why is this happening? Infectious diseases experts have warned the hotel quarantine system is not foolproof.
In an interview with Daily Mail Australia just before Christmas, World Health Organisation adviser Professor Mary-Louise McLaws said the hotel quarantine system was past its used-by date.
The University of New South Wales infectious diseases experts said many hotels lack appropriate air flow and suggested that quarantine facilities should be shifted out of built-up cities to regional sites.
Meanwhile, Dr Chant said there has been an increase in the number of infected travellers returning from overseas recently.
‘We are seeing more infections in our returning travellers, and whilst we regret any transmission event, we need to learn from it,’ she said.
New South Wales takes about half of the country’s hotel quarantine load and seven new cases were reported in hotel quarantine on Monday alone.
Meanwhile, mutated, more infectious strains running rampant in the United Kingdom and South Africa remain a cause for concern.