On April 17, he said, a staff member was sent home sick from the meatworks but that person was unable to get a coronavirus test because they “didn’t have symptoms to warrant a COVID test”.
The worker was turned away from testing twice before returning a positive result after insisting for a third time that a doctor screen him for COVID-19, the inquiry heard.
Mr Kairouz said he was first alerted to a positive case among his staff on April 27. He said that case came to light after another staff member severed his thumb at work and went to the Sunshine Hospital for treatment on April 23, where he developed a cough and was tested for the virus.
Two dozen staff at Sunshine Hospital were later sent home after the Cedar Meats worker tested positive. A nurse at the hospital, who had treated the worker, later tested positive.
Mr Kairouz strongly disputed comments made by then Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos at the time that the cluster had been handled “absolutely perfectly” by the department.
He said the greatest failure in the handling of the outbreak was a Department of Health and Human Services directive for staff to get tested at a multitude of testing sites, rather than setting up a single testing clinic at the abattoir.
“My one wish is that DHHS were able to test on-site because we would have been able to get on top of the outbreak,” he told the inquiry.
“We knew how difficult it would be to communicate with 350 workers of such diverse backgrounds and language barriers once they left business. Time was of the essence. It would have ensured that detailed and more accurate information was obtained from our staff through the use of Cedar managers and interpreters. Unfortunately, DHHS could not organise this.”
Mr Kairouz also said DHHS delays in getting on top of the outbreak meant one of his staff members ended up infecting nine others in their family.
“It was a devastating situation on a personal level,” Mr Kairouz told the inquiry. “It was a very confusing time for us all. It was a very difficult time. We were harassed and seen to have done something wrong and that was extremely hard for everyone.”
The Age has previously reported that Cedar Meats management ignored reports of workers who believed they may have had coronavirus in mid-April as “rumour and innuendo” weeks before health officials shut down the abattoir.
Between April 13 and 17, Cedar Meats and Labour Solutions, the labour-hire firm that provides more than half of the Cedar Meats workforce, had daily phone calls about a small group of workers, some of whom were off on sick days, who told management they believed they had COVID-19 or believed their coworkers were infected.
Workers were offered face masks only on April 29, when Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton ordered the closure of the business.
Since the outbreak, Mr Kairouz said he had invested nearly $1 million in measures to protect staff, including thermal cameras, which take the temperature of staff entering the abattoir.
Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, told the inquiry COVID-19 cases were lost and duplicated during the second wave as Victoria’s contact tracing system was overwhelmed.
He said it was impossible to determine whether the contact tracing systems in other states in Australia would have been overwhelmed like Victoria had they been hit with hundreds of new infections a day.
“It all comes to down preparation,” Dr Finkel said.
“There is no question Victoria’s system was overwhelmed. But it’s very hard to be precise on that. Would another state collapse at 100 cases, per day sustained, per million?
“I know many of the states are training to deal with something like 50 cases per day per million without losing the ability to manage those cases. That’s not easy to do, but we do believe it is achievable.”
Dr Finkel, who has conducted a review of the nation’s contact tracing systems, also said Victoria should continue to aim for risk minimisation, rather elimination and avoid widespread lockdowns and “all their negative consequences”.
“I have no doubt risk minimisation is the way to go. Risk minimisation is based on constant preparation, well-trained workforces and modern technology to prevent outbreaks before they occur,” he said.
The Age revealed last week that the Victorian Health Department allowed workers at the Cedar Meats abattoir to return to work while waiting on COVID-19 tests during contact tracing efforts in May.
Under the current rules, contacts of close contacts of infected people are told to immediately self-isolate – if those rules had been in place earlier in the year, the plant’s entire 350-strong workforce likely would have been told to quarantine after it was closed by Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton.
In its submission to the inquiry, the company described evidence given by former health minister Jenny Mikakos to another parliamentary inquiry in May as “factually incorrect”.
Ms Mikakos told the committee the company took several days to hand over information about who visited the site.
Ms Mikakos, who resigned in September, wrote to Mr Kairouz in August explaining her evidence.
She acknowledged the company handed over timely information, but said contact details were sometimes out of date or lacking full names, meaning the process took longer than anticipated and hampered contact tracing.
A Health Department spokeswoman said last week the department stood by the evidence it gave to the inquiry.
The Cedar Meats outbreak, which prompted a WorkSafe inquiry, put the spotlight on Victoria’s contact tracing system during the first wave of COVID-19 infections. About 10 days after the abattoir was closed, the Andrews government announced a $20 million rapid-response team to handle high-risk outbreaks.
Premier Daniel Andrews was asked about Ms Mikakos comments, which described the handling of Cedar Meats as “absolutely perfect” on Wednesday, but declined to comment.
“I’m not seeking to correct those or add to them,” Mr Andrews told reporters.
“All I’d say to you is that’s a long time ago, there’s a political process going on at the moment down in Melbourne on these issues. I’m going to wait for the report of that parliamentary inquiry, that’s the appropriate thing to do.”
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Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.