The inquiry into Victoria’s COVID-19 quarantine hotels scandal has heard poor cleaning efforts and lack of infection-control training increased the risk of the virus escaping into the community.
But the leader of the Health Department team sent in to control the most damaging outbreak at Rydges on Swanston in May would not agree on Tuesday that poor conditions and practices he found there made wider transmission “inevitable”.
Evidence presented to the inquiry also indicated that use of private security firms to guard returned travellers in the isolation hotels made it more difficult to contain the clusters.
The inquiry was shown text messages from the Victorian president of the Australian Medical Association expressing frustration at the state Health Department after he raised concerns about the quarantine program with officials in mid-April.
“Why are they so secretive?” Professor Julian Rait asked a colleague in a message.
The head of the department’s investigation into the Rydges on Swanston outbreak, Dr Simon Crouch, told the inquiry he thought early on that the hotel environment could have been causing transmission.
The Rydges cluster has been identified as the source of 90 per cent of Victoria’s coronavirus second surge, which grew from just eight initial infections mostly among security guards at the hotel to cause more than 500 deaths and drive Melbourne into a stage four lockdown.
Counsel assisting the inquiry Ben Ihle put it to Dr Crouch that conditions at Rydges on Swanston made a wider outbreak not only likely but inevitable.
“Given what we know now about the practices that were in place at the time that those initial transmission events occurred, as stated in this report, there was a high risk of transmission of coronavirus from returned travellers to people working in that setting,” Dr Crouch replied.
Mr Ihle repeatedly put it to Dr Crouch and to his Health Department colleague Sarah McGuinness that an opportunity may have been lost to control the outbreak by isolating workers from Rydges earlier. Dr McGuinness agreed the decision “may have had an impact”.
Another Health Department expert, senior medical adviser Dr Clare Looker, told the inquiry in a witness statement that the demographic profile of the private security workforce made it more difficult to control the outbreak.
She said the security guard cohort often worked in multiple jobs and many of the guards that tested positive to COVID-19 lived in large, crowded households.
“The workforce was also largely casual and so many had and were required to have more than one job to sustain themselves and/or their families,” Dr Looker wrote.
“They were also a young, fit and socially active cohort and tended not to seek testing even if symptomatic until it was required on day 11 of their quarantine period.”
By that time, there was transmission within their household, according to the senior health official.
There were also language issues and at times a distrust of government services.
“It was challenging to obtain accurate information,” Dr Looker said.
The inquiry heard a positive case who was linked to the Rydges on Swanston outbreak lied to contact tracers, and did not tell investigators they had a housemate.
Another infected person told contact tracers he lived alone, but he was in fact sharing a room with someone else.
The inquiry hearings continue on Thursday.
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