The North West Regional Hospital was forced to close earlier this month. (ABC News: Jessica Moran)
Lyndon Hunter never imagined his community in the north-west of Tasmania would become a coronavirus pandemic hotspot.
- About 5,000 Tasmanians were forced to go into 14 days of quarantine earlier this month
- Most of Tasmania’s confirmed cases of coronavirus are from the state’s north-west
- The north-west has tighter restrictions than the rest of the state
“I think Tasmanians would probably expect it to be one of the last places, to be honest,” he said.
“We’re an island state, it’s small, we’re separate from the rest of the country.”
But Mr Hunter is one of about 5,000 north-west Tasmanians forced into quarantine a fortnight ago, after an outbreak in the region caused a major lockdown.
His wife works at the North West Regional Hospital (NWRH) and the North West Private Hospital (NWPH) in Burnie, which were shut down because of the outbreak, with all staff and their families forced into isolation.
“It starts to hit home pretty quick, that just because we’re an island it doesn’t mean we’re not going to be affected,” Mr Hunter said.
“When things started closing up, it was like, ‘well, hang on, this is getting pretty serious, and pretty real’.
“And now, knowing a couple of people that have had the virus [which] made them quite unwell, it’s definitely something that’s hit home to a lot of Tasmanians.”
Lyndon Hunter is one of about 5,000 people forced into quarantine in Tasmania’s north-west. (Supplied)
‘Fortress Tasmania’ not so secure
Little more than a month ago, Tasmania appeared to be doing everything right.
Tasmania COVID-19 snapshot
- Confirmed cases: 207
- Deaths: 9
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Testing criteria are different for north-west residents.
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Claiming the “toughest border measures in the country”, Premier Peter Gutwein declared mandatory quarantine for all travellers into the state.
“Fortress Tasmania” was the idea, and visitors were told “don’t come”.
The island state was on board with restrictions taken up nationally — gyms closed, restaurants and bars became takeaway-only, and gatherings got smaller and smaller.
But on the day the two-person gathering rule was adopted, Tasmania’s nightmare quietly began.
A Ruby Princess cruise ship passenger, a woman in her 80s, died from coronavirus at the North West Regional Hospital in Burnie.
At the time, Tasmania had only recorded 69 cases of coronavirus.
That number has now blown out to more than 200, with almost every case in the state since then recorded in the north-west.
The vast majority have been staff and patients from the NWRH and the NWPH.
While it is believed the outbreak began with the Ruby Princess cruise ship passenger, investigations into the primary source of infection, and how it spread so quickly, are ongoing.
The number of coronavirus cases in Tasmania’s north-west per 100,000 people far outstrips the same figure for the state as a whole and Australia.
Bill Bowtell was an adviser to former federal health minister Neale Blewett in the 1980s, and an architect of Australia’s response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
He grew up in Tasmania.
Mr Bowtell said Tasmania, along with Western Australia and South Australia, had one of the strongest responses in the country in the third week of March.
“It was very encouraging that Tasmania moved swiftly to establish control over its borders and to cut down travel into the state,” he said.
“I think they did very well in those weeks, in mobilising the health force and encouraging Tasmanians to stay indoors.”
Tasmania has consistently had some of the lowest rates of testing in the country.
And the older demographic and concentration of health problems in the north-west made it the most vulnerable area in the country, according to the Australian National University.
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‘Long, slow, rocky’ way back
Mr Bowtell said he believed north-west Tasmania was essentially unlucky.
“We can see how very quickly, despite all the precautions and the best efforts of healthcare workers and the Tasmanian government, things can change very quickly.
“It can happen anywhere in Australia, it’s in one sense just the luck of how the virus is transmitted around the country.”
UNSW professor of infectious diseases control Mary-Louise McLaws also said the north-west outbreak could have happened anywhere, especially in regional communities with health workers shared between hospitals.
She said after the outbreak, there could have been an argument for a stricter lockdown.
“There could’ve been a place for actually ring-fencing the whole area to ensure that anyone with a minor case, or a case that they’ve mistaken for another respiratory infection, didn’t leave Burnie and go somewhere else in Tasmania,” she said.
Both experts believe the north-west of Tasmania should be a warning to the rest of the country of how quickly an outbreak can happen.
Mr Bowtell said that warning should be particularly heeded as state and territories looked at relaxing social distancing measures and restrictions on gatherings.
“We don’t have a vaccine. There is no treatment or cure,” he said.
“So for the foreseeable future, as long as the virus remains in Australia, we will be susceptible to these outbreaks and clusters.”
“The path out of this is not a straightforward, declaring victory. It’s going to be a long and slow and rocky progress.”
He said widespread testing of asymptomatic people would give Australia a good baseline to understand how far coronavirus had really spread.
“Then you can look to relaxing restrictions or moving very cautiously to more interaction in the community.”
Beware the lull, disease expert says
Professor McLaws said that proactive testing of people without symptoms should particularly occur in hotspots, such as the north-west of Tasmania, before measures were wound back.
“This period, where it looks as if we’ve got very few cases, is probably the most dangerous period of all,” she said.
“We’ve gone through all this hard work of being physically distanced, closing down businesses, doing it very tough financially for a lot of people.
“You don’t want to have all of that hard work gone for nothing because all of a sudden we get these increases in cases that have been hiding in the community, at home quite rightly, and then they go out to a super-spreading event such as restaurants or parties.”
Both Mr Bowtell and Professor McLaws believe the north-west of Tasmania should be a warning to the rest of the country of how quickly an outbreak can take hold.
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Inquiry needed: AMA
The head of the Australian Medical Association in Tasmania, John Burgess, said people in the north-west would need a more detailed explanation than “bad luck” about the outbreak.
Hospital staff have already raised concerns about a lack of personal protective equipment, and communications breakdowns.
Professor Burgess has called for a parliamentary inquiry into the outbreak, and said any interim report from departmental investigations should be publicly released.
“In the sense that it may have been something which was unavoidable, that could be the case,” he said.
“But mostly one would seek to understand based on facts and evidence [as to] what occurred.”
Life ‘won’t be the same’
Lyndon Hunter’s time in quarantine is nearly over, but the ramifications are ongoing.
He lost his casual job as an electrician when he and his family were forced into lockdown.
“It starts to add up in cost,” Mr Hunter said. “Bills keep coming in, my kids still need to eat.
“The question is, where does this go from here? Is this going to last a month, a week or a lot longer?”
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Despite the challenges of lockdown, Mr Hunter said he has enjoyed spending time with his family.
And he thinks the State Government has handled the situation well.
“Once we get past this uncertainty, I’m sure things will go back to similar to what it used to be,” he said.
“But it won’t be exactly the same, and it won’t be the same for some time.”
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