Government tweaks hotel program but experts say mask rules insufficient

The Victorian government has tweaked its hotel quarantine program to prevent potential transmission of COVID-19 through the air and get the program as close to “perfect” as possible, but leading scientists say new mask rules do not go far enough.

As the state on Saturday recorded no new cases of COVID-19 either in the community or hotel quarantine, the government announced large families staying in hotels would have empty “buffer” rooms around them and workers would be subject to tighter PPE rules.

The changes came as the government confirmed Australian Open spectators would need to wear masks inside stadiums with a closed roof, despite all primary close contacts of Victoria’s only recent locally transmitted case testing negative. The three main Australian Open stadiums, including Rod Laver Arena, have retractable roofs but the courts that host less high-profile matches do not.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the transmission between residents at Melbourne’s Park Royal hotel earlier this week was likely the result of doors being opened at the same time, prompting a clampdown on practices that could lead to airborne spread. A review will be conducted into the ventilation systems in quarantine hotels.

Close friends of the Noble Park man who tested positive have all returned negative results.Credit:Getty Images

Meal services will be staggered so doors in the same hotel corridor are not opened simultaneously and staff in hotel quarantine will now wear both face shields and surgical masks. The government will also consider installing CCTV on each floor of hotels, as recommended by a review into Queensland’s recent hotel quarantine outbreak.

Professor Sutton said he was “not sure we’ll find out exactly what happened” in relation to the 26-year-old worker who tested positive at the Grand Hyatt. However, the Park Royal transmission pointed to airborne spread where the virus lingered in the air, a method of passing on the virus that has not been guarded against as strongly as droplet transmission through, for example, coughing.

“For the Park Royal, you know, there was an entire family who were infected. They were in their room, all shedding virus, which would have contributed to a very high kind of viral fog, if you like, that would have been a particular risk,” he said.

“Sometimes even when you don’t know, you just need to look at the system issues across the board, apply them for each and every person who’s in quarantine, and try and tighten it across each and every quarantine setting.”

Epidemiologists Mike Toole, from the Burnet Institute, and Tony Blakely, from Melbourne University, applauded the government for making the reforms they said would combine to help reduce the risk of infection in hotels to as close to zero as possible.

“We know you can't make quarantine perfect but the whole job is to find every improvement we can make,” Professor Blakely said.

“Ventilation is not easy. If we are going to keep hotels in the CBD … then we just need to be finding quality improvements.“

Professor Toole said he was disappointed the government did not mandate N95 masks, which provided more protection than surgical masks, for all staff in hotel corridors or lobbies who came near guests. The view was shared by Jane Whitelaw who sits on the Australian Standards Committee which sets national standards for respiratory protection.

“There still seems to be a lack of acknowledgement of aerosol spread … Cases [indicating aerosol spread] keep happening over and over again,” Ms Whitelaw said.

She said she did not believe the government’s initial review of hotel ventilation systems was completed adequately – using international standards and manual tests of air circulation – and the results should be made public.

Professor Blakely said the reluctance to use N95 masks might point to a potential shortage of them.

More than 23,000 tests were recorded on Saturday and no positive results had been returned by any of the primary close contacts of the Grand Hyatt worker.

The Health Department has called all of the man’s 767 workplace contacts and their testing was “very well-progressed”, Health Minister Martin Foley said. Of the 362 close contacts who had attended the 14 exposure sites the Noble Park man visited, 60 per cent had now tested negative and others had results pending.

Professor Sutton said while it was “early days”, it was heartening to record another day without a case.

“A zero day is a great day on any day, but in particular with this strain, first identified in the UK, having no positive results out of those exposure sites and numerous primary close contacts is very encouraging,” he said.

“But as I said yesterday, it is early days. We do need to see that full 14 days of the incubation period play out before we can be absolutely happy that we’re in safe territory.”

Tennis officials have also confirmed all 507 players and staff tested for COVID-19 in Melbourne on Thursday returned negative results.

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