By ALEC SMART
Victorian health authorities allowed a man who tested positive for coronavirus to leave his quarantine early and travel to Sydney, where he returned to work in a Woolworths supermarket in Balmain.
The man, who flew into Melbourne on June 11 after a trip to Bangladesh, was initially ordered to self-isolate in a hotel designated a quarantine zone for overseas travellers returning from COVID-19 hotspots.
According to NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant, the man was tested for coronavirus on his fourth day in isolation and returned a positive reading for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
However, on the tenth day of his quarantine he was again assessed by medical staff, apparently not deemed a risk, and on day 14 allowed to leave the hotel without another test to determine if he was still infected with the coronavirus.
On 26 June the infected man returned to his home in Sydney via a Jetstar flight north, although he reportedly wore a mask while on board.
Infectious man returned to work
On 27 and 28 June he worked two shifts at his job in a Woolworths supermarket in Balmain, inner-west Sydney. He was stationed by the self-service checkouts, which included cleaning the scanning tills between customers.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard, who faced criticism and calls for his sacking after the Ruby Princess and three other cruise ships hurriedly disembarked hundreds of coronavirus-infected passengers into the heart of Sydney in March, commented on the Balmain case.
“The manager of the store asked him to have another test because he obviously had some sort of symptoms, and that test has come back positive.”
However, Woolworths denied that their employee showed COVID-19 symptoms and insisted that the manager requested the man undertake a new assessment for coronavirus after it was discovered he had been overseas.
“The team member didn’t report or present with any symptoms of illness while on duty,” a Woolworths’ spokesperson said.
The Balmain Woolworths store has since ordered 50 staff who were on duty over the weekend of 27-28 June, even if they weren’t directly exposed to the infected man, to cease work and self-isolate. Mr Hazzard further warned shoppers who had visited the supermarket on those days to be “alert” to possible symptoms.
Health authorities also declared they would trace any airline passengers seated near the infected man on the Jetstar flight JQ510 from Melbourne and warn them as a precaution that they may have been exposed to the virus – which would also affect airline staff.
As to why the man had been released from quarantine without a final test to check if he was still coronavirus-positive, NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said “If you are symptom-free for 72 hours and it’s been at least 10 days since your onset of your symptoms than you are deemed non-infectious.”
“We are acting at this moment for the abundance of caution,” she added. “It may be subsequently concluded that he is not infectious.”
However, the Victorian Govt has launched an inquiry into the way in which quarantine hotels are being managed after a massive spike in new infections around the city of Melbourne, none of which have been attributed to the recent Black Lives Matter public anti-racism rallies.
On 1 July the Balmain Woolworths underwent a precautionary deep clean operation overnight to kill any possible residue of coronavirus on surfaces and reopened the following day. A Woolworths spokesperson declared “Any customers who shopped in our Balmain store on the weekend and feel unwell in the next two weeks should make contact with NSW Health.”
Victorians bringing COVID-19 to Sydney
Although Sydney has been isolated from the sudden resurgence of the coronavirus that has seen parts of Melbourne return to virtual lockdown, seven more cases were detected in Sydney on 2 July during a detection blitz by health authorities at Sydney Airport and the interstate rail terminal at Central. Five of those who tested positive were travellers returning from Melbourne who flew into Sydney.
A woman who showed signs of COVID-19 infection and undertook a mouth swab in Melbourne, caught an XPT train to Sydney instead of isolating and awaiting her test result.
“Our health staff found somebody with symptoms, who had actually been tested in Victoria, and then got on the train and came to Sydney. Now, that’s about as silly as it gets,” Mr Hazzard said.
She is now in quarantine and may be prosecuted under a new Public Health Order signed by Mr Hazzard that came into force at midnight on 1 July.
The order states that travellers who visit 10 Melbourne postcode districts identified as ‘hot spots’ (and currently under 14-day mandatory stay-at-home rules for residents), will face fines of $11,000 or up to six months jail time if they then travel to NSW. There are limited exemptions for those returning home on compassionate grounds and similar harsh punishments apply to Melbourne residents in the zones who breach their enforced isolation.
NSW Health Authorities requested their Victorian counterparts apply stricter screening processes at the state’s various exit points, including railway stations and airports.
As of 3 July 2020, Australia has recorded 7,999 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 104 deaths. The highest proportion of those are people aged 20-29.
NSW currently has one COVID-19 patient undergoing intensive care, while a further 68 less serious cases are receiving treatment in hospitals or specialist home care.