Victoria’s top health officials have defended the state’s testing and contact tracing systems as two new cases linked to the Holiday Inn outbreak were reported, taking the Melbourne cluster to 16.
The new cases – a three-year-old child and a woman from a separate household – attended a family function at a private venue on Sydney Road in Coburg last weekend. They have been isolating since 12 February.
The child’s mother could be another possible case – she has returned three conflicting test results over the past 24 hours. The state’s head of contact tracing, Jeroen Weimar, told reporters on Sunday that tracing for her was under way including contacting staff at Alfred Health where the woman worked.
A Holiday Inn staff member who attended the event initially returned a negative result which was subsequently found to be a “weak positive”, authorities said on Sunday.
There are 940 primary close contacts identified with the outbreak. Of those, 129 are direct family, workplace and immediate close contacts. So far, 127 people have tested negative, with two more results due on Sunday.
The Victorian health minister, Martin Foley, defended the state’s contact-tracing and pathology systems, stating close contacts were contacted by health authorities within 48 hours more than 98% of the time, and for the recent positive cases, the average turnaround time from testing to contact was 17 hours.
“If you include the time it took for those test results to be analysed and returned by our labs, the average time from arriving at a testing site, getting swabbed, being interviewed as a positive case was 17 hours,” he said.
“This is a rapid turnaround by both our public and private labs and I want to thank our pathology team for their continued effort in improving over the course of the past 12 months as they get better and better at their job.”
Weimar said contact tracers had closed out a number of investigations into potential exposure sites, including at two schools, and the RAAF site at Point Cook after all contacts returned negative test results.
Fears over an outbreak at Melbourne airport have also eased after 12 colleagues of a positive staff member at the Brunetti cafe at terminal 4 all returned negative results.
Of the 15 customers who visited the cafe at the relevant time and are still in Victoria, 13 have returned negative test results. The remaining two are expected later on Sunday. The other customers are interstate and being managed by health officials in those jurisdictions.
Weimar said the investigation around the terminal outbreak was “in a steady state”. All the close contacts of a positive cleaner who worked in the same terminal had tested negative.
Foley said it was too early to say whether the snap lockdown had been successful but the early signs were positive. “We’ll continue to monitor it on a day-by-day basis, but it’s really up to the shared effort of all Victorians,” the health minister said.
The state’s chief health officer, Prof Brett Sutton, dismissed any suggestions the lockdown had been an overreaction.
“This is a high-stakes game, with a virus that has caused devastation across the northern hemisphere and many, many other countries in the world and may soon be the predominant variant of concern globally, and we cannot afford to be wrong here,” he said.
“We have to be precautionary. It’s an awful situation to have a circuit breaker of any kind but it’s done because we must get on top of this.”
Health officials said the positive test result for Greek tennis player Michail Pervolarakis after he departed Melbourne earlier this week for South Africa, via Doha, was not of concern.
“This particular individual tested negative on the day of departure, but was on a long flight, mixed with other international travellers … with a significant risk of cases on the subsequent levels of flight,” Sutton said.
Foley pointed out Pervolarakis had left through the international terminal, so could not be linked to the terminal four exposure sites.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, meanwhile, said the “most precious of cargo” – 80,000 shots of the Pfizer vaccine – would arrive in Australia before the end of the week and vaccinations would begin in the last week of February, as scheduled.
The initial focus will be on frontline workers, in particular those working in hotel quarantine and healthcare workers.
Hunt said he was hopeful the Therapeutic Goods Administration would approve the AstraZeneca vaccine this week too – potentially making up any shortfall should there be issues with the delivery of the Pfizer vaccine.
But questions remain over who will be in charge of the rollout. Labor MPs in the NSW Illawarra region wrote to both the state and federal governments asking for a briefing on the plan and received conflicting responses.
In correspondence seen by the Guardian, NSW state MP Ryan Park was told by NSW health minister Brad Hazzard’s office to speak to the federal government, as it was their responsibility, while federal Labor MPs Sharon Bird and Stephen Jones were told by Hunt’s office to speak to the NSW state health minister.
Asked who would lead the vaccine rollout, the states or the federal government, Hunt said on Sunday it was a “partnership”.
The federal Labor health spokesperson, Mark Butler, said the government needed to have a clear chain of command ready before the rollout at the end of the month.
“Australians want to know when they will get the jab in their arm, but it seems the government can’t even agree upon who is responsible for the rollout,” Butler said. “If Scott Morrison wants to stick to his promise of 4 million Australians being vaccinated by the end of March, these simple questions about who is responsible for the rollout need to be answered.”
Hunt on Sunday also appeared to pour cold water on the Victorian premier’s suggestion that international arrivals caps should be slashed while 40,000 stranded Australians remain desperate to return home.
“Bringing those people home is a task for all of us,” Hunt said. “When there are discussions, it has to be boiled down to the human. Mums and dads coming home to see their sons and daughters, children who have been studying overseas, families that have been separated, people coming home to say goodbye to loved ones. That is our deep, profound, human duty, and we will continue to do that and we’ll encourage all states and territories to do that.”