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How does COVID-19 leak from hotel quarantine?

With the latest COVID-19 outbreak in Victoria, we thought it would be apt to talk about how someone could contract COVID-19 from hotel quarantine. 

What is hotel quarantine and why has the Australian Government chosen to use a hotel quarantine model? 

It is a 14-day quarantine that is completed in a designated quarantine hotel, and is supervised. Every person entering Australia from another country (and, in some cases, from Australian states and territories that have certain restrictions imposed) must complete the entire 14 days in a hotel room. Returned travellers now need to pay a fee for the hotel quarantine (it initially started as a government-funded program), and the fee includes accommodation, food and some basic necessities. 

Experts agree the system has been successful overall. After seeing the initial positive results from nations like Singapore at the beginning of the pandemic, Australia adopted the hotel quarantine system to avoid constant outbreaks of the virus from returning travellers spreading in Australia. The system is regarded as a major factor in Australia’s successful containment of COVID-19. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 19 leaks of COVID-19 from hotel quarantine.  

How can someone catch COVID-19 in hotel quarantine? 

The most commonly discussed concern is around inadequate air ventilation in hotels. It’s important to remember these hotels are not designed to be used for quarantine – as such, the ventilation systems are not necessarily equipped to prevent the virus from spreading from room-to-room or in common areas. In May 2021, epidemiologist Adrian Esterman said, “medi-hotels are not fit-for-purpose. We know that anyway, this [situation] simply confirms it”. 

Experts also believe the opening and closing of different rooms doors at similar times can potentially lead to transmission. Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, hospital infection and infectious diseases control at UNSW has advocated for better separation of guests, as well as more regular testing. Take a look at a recent example of how a guest most likely contracted COVID-19 in hotel quarantine below. 

The current Victorian cluster  

The latest cluster of locally acquired COVID-19 cases in Victoria is thought to have originated from hotel quarantine in South Australia. A report from the South Australian Government found that it was likely the quarantined individual (who quarantined in SA before returning to their home state of Victoria) contracted the virus from another traveller staying in an adjacent room through the opening and closing of doors. According to the report, there was supposedly one instance where there were 12 minutes between the door openings, and another occasion where there were 18 seconds between when the guest with COVID-19 opened his door across the corridor, and the Victorian guest opened his door to collect his meal.

In this instance, the report found that there was no contribution of ventilation to the possible transmission.

The Federal Government is currently considering a proposal from the Victorian Government to construct a purpose-built quarantine facility that it believes would eliminate the concerns we’ve discussed above. A 3000-bed facility is expected to cost $700 million — however, as the current snap lockdown is Victoria set to cost the state an estimated $1 billion per week, experts are arguing that upgrading quarantine systems will come at a far less cost.

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