Mystery Cases Trigger Overhaul of Australian State Quarantine

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South Australia is overhauling its system of hotel quarantine after discovering that two returned overseas travelers and a security guard mysteriously contracted Covid-19 at an isolation facility.

Authorities have scoured CCTV images and have so far failed to identify how the couple who’d returned from Nepal and the guard became infected at the so-called medi-hotel in Adelaide. A hotel cleaner also caught the virus and the state is now trying to contain a cluster of 29 cases in the state capital.

While many nations require incoming passengers to self-isolate, Australia is one of only a handful of places along with New Zealand, China, Hong Kong and Vietnam that mandate quarantine in hotels or other facilities.

Tens of thousands of Australians, many living in Europe and the U.S. where the virus is rampant, are waiting to return home on limited flights and must undergo 14 days of quarantine on their return.

The system has been pivotal to Australia’s success in curbing community transmission -- but has also proved to be a chink in its armor. Bungled security at quarantine hotels in Victoria state, which reportedly included guards sleeping with guests, saw the virus escape into the community -- leading to a three-month lockdown in Melbourne.

South Australia Premier Steven Marshall announced Wednesday that any returned travelers who tested positive would be moved to a separate medical facility managed by state police.

“We must put as many shields as possible between the virus and the South Australian community,” he said.

Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier said officials were now studying the smallest of details on CCTV footage -- when vacuuming was done, whether staff touched a surface and then their face -- to determine how the infections were caused.

The state last week briefly imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, fearing it was dealing with an extremely infectious strain of the virus. Authorities believed a man became infected after buying a takeaway pizza, but it turned out he’d lied to contact tracers, and had worked at the restaurant for several shifts alongside an infected co-worker who was also a guard at the quarantine hotel.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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