Dozens of venues across two states are in the spotlight as Queensland contact tracers “go into overdrive” to control two distinct coronavirus clusters emerging from a major Brisbane hospital.
The outbreak has sent greater Brisbane, and the Princess Alexandra Hospital itself, into lockdown, raised questions about the vaccination of healthcare workers around the country and wreaked havoc with some Easter holiday plans.
It swelled to more than a dozen people on Tuesday as authorities announced six new cases of community transmission and two historical cases, which are no longer infectious but appear to be linked.
The fear of infections spread south of the border after guests and an entertainer who travelled to a hen’s party at the tourist hotspot tested positive for the virus.
Queensland authorities described the current phase as “critical” in tracking the outbreak and determining whether further measures would be needed beyond the three-day greater Brisbane lockdown.
But they appeared relieved on Tuesday morning that, despite several infectious people spending quite a lot of time in the community, there were no mystery cases unlinked to the current clusters.
“We don’t have community transmission out there that we’re not aware of the moment,” Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said, noting contact tracers were going into “overdrive”.
“All of our cases are linked to either the first cluster with the doctor who worked at the PA or the second cluster.”
The impacts have been wide-ranging as Brisbane’s streets emptied and travellers cancelled Easter trips north.
In Byron Bay, some tourists were heading home early as business owners worried about the potential impact on what one cafe owner described as the biggest weekend of the year.
Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland executive Amanda Rohan has reportedly called for the state government to consider extending Good Friday trading hours to make up for lost trade and potential stock losses.
“It really does hit with businesses costs and now with JobKeeper ended yesterday there is no safety net for businesses or their staff,” she told Nine newspapers.
COVID-19 health workers must be vaccinated
The mandate follows revelations neither the doctor infected earlier this month nor the nurse who tested positive this week had been vaccinated.
Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young said she’d been recommending hospitals introduce such a policy for “several weeks” but Health Minister Yvette D’Ath defended not having mandated the policy sooner.
She said thousands more workers had been added to phase 1a of the vaccine rollout as the number of active cases in Queensland hospitals increased, to 78 as of Tuesday, and understaffing wards would also have posed a risk.
Despite almost nine in 10 (about 41,000) frontline Queensland health workers having received at least one vaccine dose, the nurse was not one of them when she worked a shift on the Princess Alexandra Hospital’s COVID-19 ward on March 18.
But Dr Young said preliminary information showed she wasn’t infected until her shift on March 23, when she wasn’t managing COVID-19 patients.
Genomic testing has linked the virus back to a patient who arrived in the hospital on March 22, leaving authorities to investigate whether the nurse was somehow exposed to the infected patient on a non-COVID shift or if another worker transmitted the virus.
“It’s just so unfortunate that this outbreak has occurred when it did another month and all of these staff would absolutely have been protected,” Dr Young said.
So far, two separate clusters have been identified, one linked to a doctor who tested positive earlier this month and one to a nurse who tested positive this week.
The nurse travelled to Byron Bay at the weekend for a hens party, where her sister and another five people, including a tradie who was with the group as an “entertainer”, became infected.
That brings the cluster to at least eight, including the original hospital patient.
The original patient had already infected another person in hotel quarantine before the doctor tested positive. It was more than 10 days before a Brisbane tradie tested positive, with four more infections confirmed in the following days.
Two more people tested positive through serology or antibody testing on Tuesday, providing a possible explanation of how the tradesman was exposed to the virus but no confirmed link back to the doctor.