Vulnerable Victorians who tested positive to coronavirus and have nowhere to safely isolate are being turned away from hotel quarantine, which some fear could spark another community outbreak of COVID-19.
Dozens of requests for emergency accommodation from high-risk Victorians, including some who are homeless and others with complex medical needs, have been rejected, despite the applicants testing positive to COVID-19 or being deemed a symptomatic close contact of a confirmed case.
A government employee, who spoke to The Age on the condition of anonymity, said at least 37 applications were rejected in August.
“The risk of causing an outbreak in the community because we can’t accommodate these people is extreme,” the source said. “Some of what’s happening here is really, really concerning. There are all these really vulnerable people who are just falling through the cracks because the system hasn’t been set up to handle it.”
In one case, a COVID-19-positive man who had severe mental health issues and was struggling with homelessness was refused quarantine accommodation because the program was unable to support the complexity of his needs. He continued to move around the community while infectious.
In another case, a man who tested positive to the virus resorted to sleep in a fire-damaged building with no heating or running water because his application for accommodation was lodged at 6pm on a weekday and all applications are approved by the Department of Justice and Community Safety before 5pm.
Victoria’s botched hotel quarantine program for returned overseas travellers has been linked to 99 per cent of second-wave coronavirus cases in Victoria.
As the number of returned travellers to Victoria dwindled in July, the program began providing accommodation to Victorians unable to safely isolate at home for 14 days or who posed a risk of transmission to others due to shared living amenities such as bathrooms.
Another Victorian man with a disability, who was a close contact of an infected person and had symptoms of the virus, was sent back to isolate in the group home he lived in, despite serious concerns about the risk he would infect others.
After his application for emergency accommodation was rejected, the man remained in a home shared by others with disabilities, who use the same kitchen and bathroom facilities.
A single mother of two children with autism, one of whom tested positive to the virus, was also rejected by the program, a government source said. Clinicians deemed the family were inseparable due to the children’s complex needs.
A request was made for them to be able to isolate together in a hotel. The woman’s application was rejected because she had an autism assistance dog for her children.
After staff handling their application challenged the decision, the family was offered emergency accommodation through the Hotels for Heroes program, which supports frontline healthcare workers who are required to quarantine or isolate.
Other Victorians exposed to the virus have been sent back into aged care homes, supported residential living facilities, or had their applications rejected because they have failed to fill out their date of birth or were homeless and therefore had no fixed address, the source said.
A state government spokeswoman said any cases rejected by the hotel quarantine program were referred to specialist welfare services, including mental health, drug and alcohol and disability support.
In August, about 8 per cent of referrals to the emergency accommodation program were deemed unsuitable due to highly-complex needs.
The government on Monday could not confirm how many of the 37 rejected applicants were offered alternative emergency accommodation through other services.
“A lot of them just went around in circles and stayed out in the community until they were eligible for clearance,” the government employee said. “There is a big gap particularly for people with mental health issues or a disability.”
The source said Victorians deemed “low-risk” by public health officials were accepted into the accommodation, while high-risk applications were rejected.
“It strongly comes across that there is a risk aversion,” the source said. “It seems that anything that poses any risk to the hotel quarantine program, so anyone who has behavioural or mental health issues, who needs specialised medical care or additional support, they are being knocked back and then they are just being let back out into the community.”
The government spokeswoman declined to comment on the specific examples of people who had been refused emergency accommodation in hotel quarantine.
“There are rigorous assessment processes in place to determine whether emergency accommodation in a restricted hotel environment can meet the specific needs of each person,” she said.
“When someone is referred to the program, we discuss any health, medical and welfare needs directly with them to gain an insight on whether a hotel setting is suitable for their quarantine or isolation period.”
Homeless and other vulnerable people who cannot get into emergency accommodation can access the COVID Isolation and Recovery facilities set up across inner Melbourne. These centres are overseen by St Vincent’s Hospital which also undertakes the intake and assessment for these facilities.
There are four isolation facilities for Victorians exposed to coronavirus and experiencing homelessness to isolate and recover, run by Anglicare Victoria, Brotherhood of St Laurence, Launch Housing, Sacred Heart Mission and VincentCare.
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Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.