Breaches of Australia’s quarantine system have risen substantially this year, and data shows that there have been as many leaks in the past three months as there were last year.
There have been as many as 30 breaches, where a community case of Covid dates back to a quarantined infection, since the system was established in March last year for Australian citizens and permanent residents returning home. Twenty of them occurred this year.
Experts say the current system is “destined” to leak and that quarantine in hotels could be unsustainable against more communicable strains like Delta.
“Our quarantine system has to improve dramatically,” says Dr Driss Ait Ouakrim, an epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne.
“Now there is a great consensus [that] quarantine in hotels is an inappropriate and, indeed, dangerous approach. It was a good quick and dirty fix in April 2020, but we’ve seen and suffered from the limitations of that system ever since. “
As of early May, seven of the 12 leaks were identified as having the Delta strain of Covid-19.
The data from CovidLive.com.au includes a couple of infractions linked to flight crew and those of ships in the early stages of the pandemic. It also includes cases that have not been epidemiologically linked to hotel quarantine. Rules on flight crew quarantine are not consistent across states and often depend on where the flights originated.
Most of the leaks occurred inside hotels. At first, many of those infected were security guards or other contractors. But more and more there have been other guests in adjacent or nearby rooms.
Last week a baggage handler at Brisbane International Airport it also tested positive, which we did not include in our count.
“The current Covid-19 quarantine system, which relies heavily on [the] the use of dedicated hotels and newly hired staff will surely continue to filter Covid cases into the community at times, ”says Maximilian de Courten, professor at the University of Victoria and director of the Mitchell Institute.
This is due to the fact that the virus can infect people days before they show symptoms, and that neither our hotels nor all of our hospitals were built to contain Covid-19.
Additionally, quarantine personnel are difficult to protect, De Courten says, because “they have to go home after their shifts, which could carry the virus to their close contacts.”
Arrivals have not increased significantly
The Delta strain of the virus has been blamed, at least in part, for the recent lowering of the limit on international arrivals. The states that have received the most international arrivals – New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria – have had the most quarantine violations.
However, Guardian Australia’s analysis of the data shows that the number of infected Covid cases abroad peaked last year. Infections abroad have been relatively stable in recent months, even as violations have increased.
The introduction of measures such as mandatory tests before international flights. in january it has probably reduced the number of infected cases abroad.
After accounting for New Zealand’s travel bubble, which did not require quarantine arrivals in Australia, there has been no significant increase in arrivals to put pressure on the system.
Different variants of Covid
Many viruses mutate over time, including Covid-19. This has made it difficult to “improve” in quarantine, as the challenge has not been the same. Our efforts to contain the virus may also be selecting characteristics that make it more difficult to contain.
“Restricting virus replication (its ultimate goal) through certain measures (such as wearing protective gear and isolating incoming travelers from hotel rooms) will give an advantage to virus mutations that can successfully overcome such barriers, for example, traveling longer distances in smaller particles (aerosols) and / or staying longer in the air, etc. ”He says of Courten.
“Therefore, over time, new variants are likely to emerge that are more difficult to contain with the same level of [quarantine] effort. And the current rising Delta variant can be an example.
“A similar escape from existing quarantine procedures can occur if new variants of the virus infect people for a relatively longer time and therefore can infect a larger number of contacts.
“This would result in longer quarantine periods being required for people infected with this variant.”
What are the alternatives?
The federal government has backed a specially built 1,000-bed quarantine facility in North Melbourne and is in talks to build similar accommodation for overseas arrivals in Western Australia and Queensland.
There will also be a home quarantine test in South Australia for people returning from low-risk countries. A date for the start of the test has not yet been set.
Dr. Ait Ouakrim says the specially designed facilities should be used for unvaccinated travelers from high-risk countries where the pandemic is not under control.
“Then we could use [hotel quarantine] for low risk travelers. We could even have fully vaccinated people quarantined at home until they receive a negative test (this regimen is applied in Victoria to people returning from orange zones in other states).
“We are far from 80% of the vaccinated population and we may never reach that level. But even if we do, the quarantine will continue to be used for quite some time to control the level of risk of virus incursion. “
Courten’s professor says that improving quarantine begins with training and vaccinating everyone in the quarantine system, including not only those who come into contact with potential cases, but also their close contacts.
Then we should move the quarantine to remote places, although there are not enough places yet, and some travelers will need the medical services found only in cities.
Finally, we need to make “the existing (imperfect) quarantine system acceptable” through more vaccinations, rapid tests and contact tracing.
“But in my opinion, these measures work only on a small scale and alone cannot be ‘the’ answer to how Australia deals with incoming Covid,” he says.
“It was a good strategy for the first 6-12 months for Australia, giving us time, but it is not a solution, not enough for now and for the foreseeable future. We need a better / more comprehensive approach to Covid. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism