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The moment Australia almost beat coronavirus

Jul 21, 2020 • 14m 58s

In the middle of last month, Australia had its last chance to contain the coronavirus pandemic. One strain of the virus was all but defeated, but then a second broke out.

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The moment Australia almost beat coronavirus

269 • Jul 21, 2020

The moment Australia almost beat coronavirus

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.

In the middle of last month, Australia had its last chance to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

One strain of the virus was all but defeated in the community. But then a second strain broke out - escaping from hotel quarantine.

Today - Rick Morton on how close Australia came to containment, and what happens next.


RUBY:

Rick, let's start by going back a month or so. Can you tell me about the moment that it became clear that Australia had failed to contain a second coronavirus outbreak?

RICK:

Yeah. So time is a clarifying thing. And in hindsight, by the middle of June, the battle to contain this new outbreak had already been lost. And it happened in a rolling sequence of events.

RUBY:

Rick Morton is a senior reporter at The Saturday Paper.

RICK:

So over three days, clusters were announced at the retailer H&M.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Fashion outlet H&M has shut up shop at Northland after a worker in his 20s tested positive to coronavirus…”

RICK:

In a North Melbourne family, in a Keilor Downs family and an Albanvale primary school teacher linked to that family. And two days after that, on June 22nd, two more teachers at the same school tested positive.

Archival Tape -- Police Officer:

“The teacher worked while infectious on the 15th and 17th of June, so the school is closed while contract tracing is underway…”

RICK:

The virus then popped up 15 kilometers to the east in a family in Maribyrnong, which was confirmed as a new cluster the next day, on June 23.

Archival Tape -- Health Officer:

“At a top level, there is one from hotel quarantine, two associated with known outbreaks…”

RICK:

Next came childcare centers, aged care homes, a McDonald's franchise in Mills Park, a mental health service in Footscray, a dental clinic in Maidstone, and two more colleges.

Archival Tape -- Health Officer:

“In the usual they’ll be closed and the subject of deep clean and all the other work including contact tracing…”

RICK:

So you’ve got two family clusters that they think are likely now to have brought the infection to Al-Taqwa College in Melbourne's west, which was declared on June 29.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“The cases link to the Al Taqwa cluster. 76 are students, 28 are staff, 16 are close contacts and 27 remain under investigation…”

RICK:

The same day Victoria's chief medical officer, Brett Sutton, confirmed that genomic testing had found that recent cases were linked to hotel quarantine.

Archival Tape - Brett Sutton:

“Whatever you call it, it’s as big as the first one it’s looking that way. Second peak, second wave, it’s got the same challenges…”

RICK:

He also acknowledged the seriousness of Victoria's situation.

Archival Tape -- Brett Sutton:

“We’ve got significant numbers to follow up and we’ve got significant risk of transmission from all of those newly diagnosed individuals.”

RUBY:

And so that was a key moment, right, when the outbreak was linked directly to hotel quarantine. Why is that?

RICK:

It's important because it shows just how close Australia came to containing this thing. You know, basically, there are only two main strains of coronavirus. And two months before this new wave of outbreaks in Victoria, Australia had pretty much beaten the first strain.

This is known as the S strain, and it's the one that has been linked back to Wuhan in China. On April 16, this S strain was found in a 79-year-old woman in Victoria, and her diagnosis would represent essentially the end of the line for the first wave of the outbreak in Australia.

RUBY:

So this ‘S’ strain was gone?

RICK:

As good as. Social distancing had been a success. Lockdown policies had starved the virus of venues for large scale contagion. The initial virus was essentially defeated.

Archival Tape -- News Anchor:

“Australia has reached a milestone with zero new locally acquired cases of coronavirus. It’s believed the first time that’s happened since the peak of the pandemic…”

RICK:

But as the original lineage kind of petered out in Australia, newer versions of the virus were taking off in Europe and America, and we watched that unfold.

Archival Tape -- US News Anchor:

“As this outbreak grows globally and the number of cases in the US rises many are wondering what the government will do and what they can do in order to prevent the spread…”

Archival Tape -- News Anchor:

“The coronavirus outbreak in Europe has passed a grim milestone with the number of deaths there now twice the official number in China…”

RICK:

This wasn’t a surprise. Scientists expected the SARS-Cov-2 to mutate as it spread. And there's no evidence these versions in Europe or America were more or less potent or infectious than what we've seen in the original outbreak in December. But the changes did provide a useful map of where the virus may have been and where it might be headed.

RUBY:

Okay, so I'm guessing that the virus that was linked to the hotel quarantine in Melbourne, that was this new version, this European or American strain?

RICK:

Correct. And, you know, when genomic testing first identified these newer versions in Australia, they were showing up in returning travelers in mandatory hotel quarantine. So people who had come home from places like north-west Europe where this virus had mutated and they had these new versions of the virus. And this meant that as long as this system held this system of hotel quarantine, as long as that was okay, the nation was on track to all but eliminate Covid-19 in the community. And then the virus got out again.

And this new strain is kind of known as G. And those two offshoots as G, Gh, Gr. But this was a strain that would ignite what Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has called a public health bushfire.

Archival Tape -- Daniel Andrews:

“Much like a bushfire, and this a public health bushfire, we need to contain it and then ultimately put it out....”

RICK:

And from here, everything sort of fell apart.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Rick, we're talking about how the second wave of coronavirus got out. You're saying it's actually a different strain to the first outbreak, which was essentially contained. Can you tell me more about that breakdown in hotel quarantine, which essentially allowed this second strain out into the community?

RICK:

So unlike New South Wales, where police were actually brought in to patrol quarantine arrivals in hotels, I walked past many of them myself in those early days, in Victoria private security contractors were hired instead. And that was a risk the Andrews government was warned about very early on.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Well leaked emails have shown just how early the Victorian government was made aware of problems with hotel quarantine”

RICK:

So leaked emails reveal that a senior bureaucrat from one of the state's departments raised the alarm on March 28, writing several high ranking leaders in the state's lead Covid-19 response agency at the Department of Health. The email urgently requested that police be put in charge of quarantine.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“The Department of Jobs wrote to an official in the state control centre: we request that Victoria Police is present 24/7 at each hotel, starting from this evening… “

RICK:

The email was also sent to Emergency Management Victoria, which was co-leading the actual hotel quarantine system. But police were never sent into the hotels.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“They never received a specific request to be involved. Their statement saying: Victoria Police has not received a formal request to provide resources to the quarantine hotels…”

RICK:

And, you know, I spoke to one police source who said to me, we were never asked.

So two months after that, the first case of a security guard, a privately contracted security guard, testing positive for quite a virus, was logged by health officials. And within days of that, this cluster at the Rydges on Swanston would grow to a total of six cases.

The day after the Rydges cluster was confirmed on May 28, an outbreak in an extended family group in the north west Melbourne suburb of Keilor Downs was declared. This is the initial Keilor Downs family cluster, there was a second one that came up in June.

And so on May 30 a class of Year Two students at the Holy Eucharist Primary School in Auburn South was sent into quarantine after a student linked to the Keilor Downs family cluster tested positive for Covid-19. Over the following fortnight, 71 cases would be declared across the state - and 71 cases over two weeks.

Many of these were returning overseas travelers.

The spread appeared to have stalled. It had got out, but they had hoped that they could contain it. This was probably the last chance the Andrews government had at keeping the second wave in check.

RUBY:

Rick, I want to understand why, despite the warnings and despite other states doing it differently, why did the Victorian government go ahead with private security instead of police? What would motivate that?

RICK:

Look, to be honest, I don't think anyone knows at this point. It might have been cheaper. Even though the police were never asked formally, it may have come up in conversation and they may have expressed their disinterest in doing so. You know there were a couple of rumors floating around, that they just didn't want to be in there doing that because I thought it was beneath them.

But the police union, you know, told me that is absolutely, categorically not true. The police were just never asked to go in.

Now, why that is the case, I don't know. But it is the linchpin in this system of containment. And it failed. The virus got out.

And so when you look at the data, by June 14, a new family cluster had been declared in Coburg, 17 kilometers east of Keilor Downs. The next day, cases were detected in a patient and health care worker at Monash Health.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Five medical staff have tested positive and a further 7 this morning are at home self-isolating…”

RICK:

On June 17, the state government confirmed that a security contractor at the Stamford Plaza had tested positive for Covid-19. Now, authorities revealed a further 21 new cases in the state that day...

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“21 new confirmed coronavirus cases have been recorded in Victoria over the last 24 hours…”

RICK:

And that, you know, that was almost double the previous highest daily update in the previous fortnight.

Two days later, officials revealed a new extended family cluster spread from that Stamford Plaza security contractor in Hellam. And from there, it started to really rush on, through the community.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“Victoria has today recorded the biggest rise in coronavirus cases since the pandemic began…”

RICK:

To the point where we are now seeing, you know, more than 300 new cases in one day.

Archival Tape -- Reporter:

“317 new cases of Covid-19 is by far and away the biggest daily jump we’ve seen…”

Archival Tape -- Another Reporter:

“Well Victoria has recorded its darkest day since the pandemic began with 428 new coronavirus cases and three deaths in 24 hours…”

RICK:

So, you know, we're not at the point yet where the lockdown measures that were reintroduced might have slowed the spread of this thing. But it really is our only hope.

RUBY:

Mm. And, Rick, what does all of this tell us about the virus and, and how we might contain it now?

RICK:

You know, the more I write about this, the more I realise that increasingly the story of coronavirus in Victoria, and across Australia, is one of a cataclysmic global event that has exploited existing failures in policy and governing institutions. It's been a stress test.

Now, it has shown up weaknesses in the hospital system in the use of private contractors to perform crucial work, which is like a drug for any stripe of government these days and has been for decades. You know, it has shown up issues in aged care funding and staffing, and it's also revealed the apparent inability of authorities to speak to migrant communities and the marginalized in ways that not only engage them, but actually in their language.

You know, the delays in getting translated material out to people in public housing towers and migrant communities is unforgivable, I think, when you're trying to contain something in the community - and it's in those communities.

So, you know, the virus is like a deadly torchlight, as far as I'm concerned. It's containment now can only be assured by dealing with the fault lines it has managed to render visible.

And, you know, that is the task in front of us right now.

And it'll be there when, when and if we get a coronavirus vaccine.

RUBY:

Rick, thank you so much for your time today.

RICK:

Thanks, Ruby.

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RUBY:

Also in the news:

There were 275 new cases of coronavirus recorded in Victoria yesterday, bringing the state’s total cases close to 3000.

The state government has ordered more than 1.37 million reusable masks for students who will be required to wear them to school from this week.

Meanwhile the Victorian inquiry into hotel quarantine has begun, and will investigate the decisions of government departments and private companies.

And a landmark review into Australia's national environment laws has called for a major overhaul, including establishing an "independent cop" to oversee them.

The review, into the 20-year-old Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, also flagged legally enforceable "national standards" to stop the decline of Australia's natural environment.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

In the middle of last month, Australia had its last chance to contain the coronavirus pandemic. One strain of the virus was all but defeated in the community. But then a second strain broke out.

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Background reading:

How the second wave broke in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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auspol covid19 coronavirus health quarantine victoria science




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269: The moment Australia almost beat coronavirus