More than 80 foreign military personnel and their family members staying at a Darwin CBD hotel are being released from quarantine over the next two days, despite concerns from an Aboriginal health group that genomic sequencing on two positive coronavirus cases detected at the hotel last week is yet to be made public.
- Foreign military personnel have been in quarantine at the CBD hotel
- Two cases of coronavirus were last week recorded at the hotel
- Aboriginal health groups say the arrangement is exposing vulnerable Territorians
Last Wednesday, a foreign military official and the partner of another official tested positive to COVID-19 at the Darwin Travelodge, where up to 300 foreign military staff and their families were given approval by the NT’s Chief Health Officer to quarantine for 14 days.
The decision to allow the cohort to stay at the inner-city hotel, rather than at the government-managed Howard Springs quarantine facility, which is considered Australia’s ‘gold-standard’ for infection control, has previously been labelled as inexplicable by the Darwin-based Danila Dilba Aboriginal Health Service.
NT health authorities previously said the two positive cases — who were part of a batch of personnel that arrived one week ago — had been relocated to Royal Darwin Hospital, while 19 close contacts were taken to the Howard Springs facility to isolate as a precaution.
The Defence Department today said 83 people, including 28 foreign military officials and their families who all arrived in Darwin two weeks ago, would be heading interstate for training programs over the next two days after completing their mandatory 14 days of quarantine.
Another 181 people, including 67 officials and their families, remain in quarantine, and will exit the hotel between January 25 and February 1.
Defence has previously stated that all personnel and family members at the Travelodge are subject to strict conditions, including the need to have a negative COVID-19 result before being released.
But on Monday, Associate Professor John Boffa, a spokesperson for the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT), said it would be a serious mistake to release any of the foreign military personnel before health authorities know which variant of the virus had been recorded within the Travelodge.
“[The genomic testing] was going to take six days to come back. I don’t think it is back yet. It has not been made public if it is.
“If it is one of the more infectious variants of the virus … it can spread beyond what you think to be the primary contacts in a quarantine facility, particularly if part of the facility that is being used is the indoor high-rise section of the facility rather than the open-air rooms.”
The ABC has asked NT Health whether genomic sequencing from the two positive cases has been completed.
Last week, the Queensland Government announced guests quarantining at the Hotel Grand Chancellor, where six cases of the mutant UK strain of the virus were recorded, would have their quarantine stays extended despite some guests already completing 14 days of quarantine.
“That’s what we should potentially be doing here,” Dr Boffa said.
“You can’t assume with one of the more infectious variants that the traditional method of just going with primary contacts is sufficient.”
CBD quarantine ‘ludicrous’: AMSANT
Dr Boffa added his voice to the growing chorus of criticism from organisations like Danila Dilba and the NT Branch of the Australian Medical Association regarding military personnel quarantining in a CBD hotel rather than Howard Springs.
“It’s ludicrous, it makes no sense that this exemption is given. It’s the position of AMSANT and other leading Aboriginal organisations in the Northern Territory that this is not good enough,” he said.
“We’ve got Howard Springs, it is the state-of-the-art national quarantine facility. The staff there have had immense training.
“It’s a risk that we shouldn’t have taken in the first place exempting these people to be in the facility.”
The Department of Defence has previously stated that the Howard Springs facility was not being used to accommodate military personnel to free up space in the facility in case of an emergency.
However Dr Boffa said that logic made little sense when one weighed up the risk of infection spread.
“Of course, there has to be planning for major disasters and there has been a lot of planning around that scenario, but remember Howard Springs has the capacity of 3,000 people and it is not operating at anywhere near full capacity,” he said.
“In the event there is such a disaster by all means you have to move people, and in that situation you might move significant people en masse to somewhere like the Travelodge. But you don’t pre-empt that, you actually start with the best facility.”
NT the ‘greatest risk-taking jurisdiction’
Pointing to the quarantine arrangements for foreign military and what he described as a trigger-happy attitude towards revoking domestic hotspots, Dr Boffa said the NT had become Australia’s most exposed jurisdiction to coronavirus.
Last week AMSANT released a statement labelling the NT Government’s revocation of the majority of its Greater Sydney hotspot, despite most other jurisdictions maintaining tighter restrictions on Greater Sydney, as “not consistent with reasonable public health practice”.
“We think a systemic pattern has emerged where the NT now is the greatest risk-taking jurisdiction in the country, even though we have the most vulnerable population, and we are the least ready to deal with an outbreak,” Dr Boffa said on Monday.
At the time of last week’s revocation, the NT’s Chief Health Officer, Dr Hugh Heggie, said he would continue to review and assess the health situation across NSW and a hotspot could be declared “at any time if required”.
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