Expert fears repeat of hotel quarantine infection cluster at Melbourne towers

Melissa Davey
·6-min read

An infectious diseases doctor and former adviser to the World Health Organization says he fears there will be a repeat of the infection cluster that emerged from a Melbourne quarantine hotel at public housing towers in lockdown in North Melbourne and Flemington following reports of medical waste being left next to food, and piles of bread being left by elevators.

Prof Peter Collignon said he was alarmed by photos from inside the towers that showed bags of groceries being left next to rubbish bins, and medical waste left in thoroughfares. Collignon said ideally food would be delivered door to door, rather than residents being forced to mingle as they came down to the foyer to collect bags of groceries left in piles, often without being given gloves or masks.

“To me this is analogous to the hotels where there were problems with infection control amongst security staff and in the end it was an infection control issue that led to spread into the wider community,” Collignon said.

Related: Coronavirus Victoria: everything we know about Melbourne's Covid-19 clusters

“Basically you need to brief food delivery staff or anyone going in to provide services in the building on infection control,” he said. “Those in the building should wear personal protective equipment if they go outside their apartment to collect food and need to be given that gear.”

He added that to ensure compliance, people must be allowed outside for fresh air. Being outside would be safer than congregating in corridors to collect food, he said.

But Rahma Abdirahman, a resident of public housing in Flemington in the 120 Racecourse Road building and a disability support worker, said no one in her building had been given a mask. She said she wore a mask but that she had bought it herself before the lockdown. She said piles of groceries had been left in bags in the foyer, and that elderly residents were forced to come down to collect it. They were not all wearing masks because many did not have them, and she said as of Tuesday there was still no hand sanitiser in the elevator or common communal areas.

She added that when she had her Covid-19 test done, the nurse wore the same pair of gloves for testing multiple people.

“I said to her, ‘no way you are going to test me,’ Abdirahman said. “I only agreed to a test once she changed her gloves. When you come out of the lift there is supposed to be sanitation but there is none whatsoever. You have got rubbish outside in corridors, there is clinical waste around that has not been collected downstairs next to the food, you have bread on the floor. There is groceries next to rubbish on the ground. This will be a bigger outbreak than they assumed because of this.”

She added that police were giving residents mixed messages. On Monday night, a police officer in charge told Abdirahman that she was allowed to go outside for some fresh air. By Tuesday morning, a different police officer said she was not allowed outside.

“The police officer who let us outside last night actually told the other officers it was a human right for us to have fresh air and she had a chat to the other officers and said to them ‘how do you expect people to cope without fresh air’?” She wanted to help us. And then today, we are suddenly not allowed out.” She added that due to her role as a disability care worker she knew many vulnerable residents in the building and that police often called on her to help communicate with residents and answer their questions.

“My neighbour has a disability and still doesn’t have their medication and basic hygiene necessities. How can this sit right with me?”

Guardian Australia contacted the Department of Health and Human Services for information about infection control in the building and training being given to staff including those handling food deliveries, but did not receive a response.

On Tuesday afternoon during the daily media update, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, told reporters: “It’s not like there’s a handbook that you can turn to.

“There’s no how-to guide for this and there are thousands of people down there doing everything they possibly can [to help residents]. We know and understand how challenging it is.” However, health experts have said the government should have been more prepared for a public housing outbreak and should have sent in health staff as a priority before police.

Another woman who contacted Guardian Australia, who wanted to be identified only as Lucy, said her grandmother is in one of the North Melbourne towers under lockdown. As of Monday afternoon her grandmother had not received any food delivery including milk. Her grandmother, who is originally from China, has mild dementia and does not speak English.

Related: Coronavirus Victoria: 191 new Covid-19 cases as community transmission soars

“My grandmother saw a trolley at the end of the corridor with food and she wasn’t sure if it was for her or if she was allowed to take from it,” Lucy said. “I called the building services to ask for my grandmother if she should take food from the trolley and I was told no, she will get food delivery to her door and there shouldn’t be trolleys left there. But what if people are grabbing from the trolley? Does that mean they are spreading the virus by contaminating surfaces? And I asked my grandmother today again if she had milk and bread delivery and she said no but she saw bread dumped next to the elevator. She was so confused – was this the delivery? Was she supposed to take some?”

She said her grandmother had been told she needed to go downstairs to get tested, but Lucy was concerned about this because she did want her grandmother, who is 84, to be exposed to sick residents. “She does want to be tested and do the right thing,” Lucy said. “So I am trying to help her and get information, I have been calling the helpline quite a bit. Call centre staff are disorganised it seems and don’t have any direct insight into the buildings. The buildings rely on the workers to do deliveries and they are the only ones who can go in and out of the buildings and make deliveries. If they are not well trained … and they are dumping food in piles … that’s not right.”

The professor of public health Mary-Louise McLaws said masks and hand hygiene when delivering food and receiving it should be essential. She added she wanted to see food delivered in a “humane way, not dumped on floors”.

“There should be an assurance anyone coming into the building to provide services understands how to put a mask on properly with clean hands, take it off with clean hands and gloves, and they must use good hygiene,” she said.

“If people have to collect food themselves they should be invited down in an orderly fashion and given protective gear, and treated with humanity.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Andrews announced a lockdown for the entirety of Metropolitan Melbourne following a record 191 new cases identified overnight. He said residents of public housing would go into the same lockdown as the rest of Melbourne, where people are allowed outside for essential shopping, work, exercise and healthcare, once all of the residents had been tested.