Patient zero for Victoria’s second wave was not a security guard
Patient zero in Victoria’s calamitous second wave of COVID-19 was not a badly behaved security guard but a night duty manager at the Rydges hotel on Swanston Street, one of Melbourne’s busiest quarantine hotels.
Leaked emails show the night manager reported on Monday, May 25, that he had come down with a fever, and late on the afternoon of the following day Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions officials were told the hotel employee had tested positive. It is presumed he caught it from a returned traveller, who has not been identified.
The Rydges on Swanston hotel, whose night manager was “patient zero” in the coronavirus outbreak.Credit:Justin McManus
The emails seen by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald show a considerable effort was then made to contain the spread of the infection.
Seven security guards contracted to patrol the hotel were stood down immediately and told to get tested and go home to isolate. A small number of hotel staff and health workers were told to do the same.
An email headed "Hotel staff member status and exposure to staff" reported on May 26 that the night manager himself was "now isolating at Rydges" and "feeling as well as can be expected".
But it was too late. Five of the original seven guards, all from contractor Unified Security, soon returned positive COVID-19 tests. They spread the disease to their families in the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne, helping seed a second wave that has infected 15,863 Victorians, including 7866 active coronavirus cases as of Thursday. To date, 275 people have died of COVID-19 in the state.
Full responsibility for infection control lay with the Authorised Officers who were brought in from various government departments.
The email chain shows that officials initially mistakenly reported that a security guard was the first positive test. However, this was later corrected by a senior official who confirmed that it was a hotel employee, whom The Age and Herald have chosen not to identify.
It is not known how the hotel’s night duty manager became infected and there is no suggestion it was through any improper behaviour. Records show he displayed no symptoms on his previous overnight shift on May 23 and had registered a normal body temperature before starting work on that date.
Sources familiar with the infection-control procedures at Rydges have told The Age and Herald that a “green zone” where staff members, security guards and nurses were assured they were safe might not have been adequately designed to prevent cross-contamination.
Infection control for the hotel quarantine program was the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services. The department had assigned an officer in each quarantine hotel to oversee operations.
“The suggestion that security guards ever had responsibility for infection control is one of the biggest myths of this debate,” a source closely involved in the hotel quarantine program said.
“Private and public hospitals use security guards, but those guards don’t deliver babies, perform surgery or oversee infection control. Full responsibility for infection control lay with the authorised officers who were brought in from various government departments.”
The hotel has been contacted for comment.
The Age and Herald have previously revealed that authorised officers seconded from Parks Victoria and the state’s Environment Department were withdrawn by their management from the hotel quarantine program due to workplace health and safety fears.
A board of inquiry has been established by Premier Daniel Andrews to investigate shortcomings in the hotel quarantine program and how they have contributed to Victoria’s devastating second surge of coronavirus.
The political heat over the issue has risen in the past week after Premier Daniel Andrews was contradicted by Defence Minister Linda Reynolds over his assertion that the Australian Defence Force did not offer to help with hotel quarantine. On Wednesday, Jobs Minister Martin Pakula said responsibility for infection control sat with the DHHS, a department overseen by Health Minister Jenny Mikakos.
The inquiry headed by former state coroner Jennifer Coate begins public hearings next week. The government has directed all questions about hotel quarantine to the inquiry, although Justice Coate has said there is no legal reason for politicians not to answer questions.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has previously revealed that genomic sequencing carried out by Melbourne’s Doherty Institute shows a significant proportion, if not all of Victoria’s second-wave cases, might be traceable back to breaches in hotel quarantine.
“Clearly there has been a failure in this program,” Professor Sutton said in July.
Security guards contracted to work at the hotels have come under strong criticism amid unproven allegations they mixed inappropriately with quarantine guests and ignored infection protocols, including unsourced rumours that one of them had sex with a guest.
In June, Professor Sutton’s then deputy, Annaliese van Diemen, said: “There's been closer mingling of these guards than we would like in the workplace."
The government has also been criticised for its failure to ensure security guards, many of whom were employed at short notice via subcontractors used by security providers Wilson, MSS and Unified, were properly supervised and trained in infection control.
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