Victoria COVID LIVE updates: Restrictions ease for regions, Melbourne starts second week of lockdown
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Feds will spend ‘hundreds of millions’ on Victorian quarantine facility
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham has confirmed the federal government will spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” helping to build Victoria’s dedicated quarantine facility near Avalon Airport.
The facility is one of the big talking points today given previous outbreaks in the southern state have been linked to its hotel quarantine program. (The current Greater Melbourne outbreak originated in Adelaide’s hotel quarantine system, according to the Victorian government.)
Minister for Finance Simon Birmingham during a Senate estimates hearing earlier this week. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The Andrews government wants the Commonwealth to spend $200 million on the open-air facility, which will be modelled off Darwin’s Howard Springs site.
“The memorandum of understanding that we have provided to the state government is broadly in accordance with what they had asked for,” Mr Birmingham told ABC News Breakfast.
“We will fund the construction of the facility and the Victorian government will operate the facility, creating additional quarantine places in their system. So yes, it will run to some hundreds of millions of dollars.
“An expression of interest process is under way at present for us to be able to get more detailed costings to enable us to move forward on that.”
Deal in sight for $200m quarantine facility near Avalon Airport
A last-minute dispute is dragging out negotiations between the federal and Victorian governments to build a new quarantine facility near Avalon Airport so it can house 500 travellers and add to the existing hotel quarantine regime.
The Victorian government has gained a draft agreement from Prime Minister Scott Morrison to back the $200 million project but is concerned the terms could lead to a sharp increase in the numbers at the centre when it would prefer a stronger focus on minimising risk.
Scott Morrison has sent an MOU to Victorian acting Premier James Merlino with federal commitments on the cost of the construction of the facility.Credit:Joe Armao/Getty
While the sticking point could prolong the discussions, the project is seen as a template for future quarantine centres in other locations if state and territory leaders want to build new facilities in the expectation of a lengthy pandemic that leads to repeated outbreaks and restrictions.
Mr Morrison has sent a Memorandum of Understanding to Victorian Acting Premier James Merlino with federal commitments on the cost of the construction, which could start in September in the hope of finishing in January next year.
Victoria would have to continue using hotel quarantine for the long-term, with the federal government only offering to fund the new Avalon centre if it adds to rather than replaces the hotel system.
A federal source said the Victorian government would be expected to contribute to the cost of the new centre, with a state source saying this would most likely be with operating costs rather than the $200 million cost of construction.
Read more: Deal in sight for $200m quarantine facility near Avalon Airport
Updated exposure sites on the way
With two coronavirus cases now ruled as false positives, there will be obvious implications for the list of exposure sites as the places they visited are removed.
Unpicking that is going to require a bit of work to figure out exactly which sites have been removed from the list.
We are sure that people who are isolating for 14 days after visiting tier 1 exposure sites attending by the false positive cases would like this information.
We have been in touch with the Department of Health to ask for a list of exposure sites that are no longer of concern and hope to bring that to you before too long.
Melbourne’s quarantine facility will tackle ‘new variants’: epidemiologist
Clinical epidemiologist Nancy Baxter was speaking on the Today show a short while ago.
She said Melbourne’s new dedicated quarantine facility, set to be built near Avalon Airport, would help tackle leaks from hotel quarantine. This is because she expects people from countries with mass outbreaks or new variants of COVID-19 to be sent to the open-air facility, whereas those coming into Australia who are vaccinated or from countries that are low-risk would still be sent to hotels.
Avalon Airport is set to house a 500-person quarantine facility.Credit:Joe Armao
“Right now where the leaks seem to be coming from … [is] people that go into hotel quarantine, they don’t have the virus, and they’re catching it from someone else in hotel quarantine and they don’t become positive until they’re actually home,” Professor Baxter said.
“So we never know that they have caught it until they’re at home, they suddenly get symptoms and they have exposed a whole bunch of people. And then we’re in the mess Melbourne is in.”
Professor Baxter added that the Victorian government would be breathing a sigh of relief that two cases of “stranger-to-stranger transmission”, which were used to help build the case for the state’s extended lockdown, were reclassified as false positives.
“Those two [cases] were the ones that had the most fleeting contact,” she said. “So there was a lot of concern about how contagious this was. I think maybe we can relax a little bit.”
So what does the reclassification mean?
When news of the reclassifications came through early on Thursday evening, The Age’s blogging stalwart Roy Ward got some insights into what that could mean for Melbourne’s lockdown.
Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett said she was optimistic the reclassification of the cases could dramatically improve the outlook for the current lockdown.
Professor Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University. Credit:Jason South
The Department of Health announced the reclassifications on Thursday night, days after the cases had been used to illustrate how contagious the strain of the virus spreading in Victoria is.
Both cases were reviewed by an expert panel and retesting of the individuals revealed they did not have COVID-19.
The decision will result in a number of primary close contacts being released from 14-day quarantine, it also means exposure sites solely linked to those two cases will be removed, including all the Anglesea sites.
The display home and the Brighton Beach Hotel remain on the exposure list as they had been visited by other positive cases.
Professor Bennett, who is chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, said the reclassifications were notable because the cases had clearly concerned health authorities.
Professor Bennett said: “I think that’s going to be very reassuring for them given that this was a key area of concern.
“You combine that with three positive test results coming in today [Thursday] who were in quarantine before they were infectious, then I think that could change the picture quite dramatically.
“Not completely as you always have concerns whether we have complete capture of cases, but given these happen to be the two very cases the Chief Health Officer pulled out. Then I expect he will be very relieved.”
Professor Bennett was unsure if it would result in health authorities shortening the now extended lockdown, but said it would reduce the burden on contact tracers.
“They were quite clear that it wasn’t doing things they hadn’t seen before, just that it was doing them more commonly,” Professor Bennett said.
“These are quite significant results because it was not only tied to where they identified their main concern, it also tied to most of the extra work we thought we needed to do to ensure we had everyone in quarantine that we needed in quarantine before we could safely open.
“So even in an operational sense, that takes some pressure off.”
Calls to fast-track Pfizer for Victoria amid ‘phenomenal demand’ for vaccine
The Australian Medical Association is pushing for COVID-19 vaccines to be fast-tracked into general practices amid a growing Pfizer shortage in Victoria fuelled by an explosion in the number of people getting vaccinated.
Some general practitioners are warning they will not have enough vials to administer second doses and keep pace with demand without an immediate boost to their dwindling vaccine supply, as Victorians in their thousands line up for their first dose.
People queue up for COVID-19 vaccination at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre early on Wednesday morning.Credit:Eddie Jim
Their plea for more vaccines from the federal government came as the AMA’s Victorian chief called on other states to contribute Pfizer doses to boost Victoria’s supplies during its current outbreak.
It also follows a warning from Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng that Pfizer doses were swiftly drying up across the state, and that vaccine providers were running off a small stockpile.
“If we had more, we would give more,” Professor Cheng said on Thursday.
“We are still vaccinating at the moment. In terms of forward bookings, there is a shortage, but I am not sure exactly when that supply will become available.”
However, a spokeswoman for federal health minister Greg Hunt disputed there was a Pfizer shortage in the state, and said that as of Thursday morning there were 160,000 unused Pfizer doses in Victoria.
“A further delivery of 71,370 Pfizer vaccines will be delivered tomorrow,” she said on Thursday.
The Victorian government said any suggestion by the federal government of stockpiling was false.
A state government spokeswoman said Victoria’s vaccination rate was up to 140,000 doses a week. “We must retain a certain number of doses to ensure all Victorians receive their second dose,” she said.
Read more: Calls to fast-track Pfizer for Victoria amid ‘phenomenal demand’ for vaccine
Health reclassifies two ‘fleeting transmission’ cases as negative
Now to those cases that have been reclassified as false positives. Yesterday, two “fleeting transmission” cases that had experts worried, and had been used as justification to indicate the infectivity of the mutant virus have been reclassified as negative.
The expert review panel has determined that the two cases linked to a display home and Brighton pub were false positives.
Testing commander Jeroen Weimar speaking to the media on Wednesday.Credit:Eddie Jim
“Moving fast and early to contain and isolate a positive case, and test and trace their contacts is a fundamental part of Victoria’s COVID-19 response,” the Department of Health said in a statement.
“Out of an abundance of caution, the Department will always enact immediate public health measures in response to the notification of any positive cases.”
The two cases were a woman who was thought to have acquired the virus at a Metricon display homes exposure site, and a male who was thought to have contracted the virus at the Brighton Beach Hotel.
COVID-19 Commander Jeroen Weimar this week called some of the cases in the current outbreak as occurring through “stranger to stranger” transmission, and that they were concerned.
“What we’re seeing now clearly is people who are, they’re brushing past each other in a small shop, they’re going around a display home, they’re looking at phones in a Telstra shop,” he said of transmissions linked to the display home, a Telstra store in South Melbourne and a grocer in Epping and Craigieburn shopping centres.
“This is, relatively speaking, relatively fleeting contact. They don’t know each others’ names. And that’s very different to where we’ve been before.“
The false positive linked to Brighton Beach Hotel had authorities on edge because the man was dining outside (where another infectious person was), in a well-ventilated site.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton had said “you wouldn’t expect transmission to occur” in a setting like that.
“We still had it as an exposure site, we still informed people to test and isolate until returning a negative, but in fact all of those people will need to be in quarantine because transmission has occurred there,” he said.
“We know that ventilation is a great risk mitigator, but it is not going to do the whole thing when you’ve got a really contagious variant.“
The display homes and Brighton Beach Hotel remain as exposure sites because they are linked to other confirmed cases.
If you’re waking up in regional Victoria it’s to eased restrictions – leaving your house for any reason, being able to go any distance from home, and small outside gatherings in public places such as parks for up to 10 people.
In Melbourne it’s day one of the week-long extension to lockdown, and the only comfort to not being able to gather outside is that the weather is too miserable to do so anyway.
The big news last night was that two of the cases attributed to transmission via fleeting contact have been reclassified as false positives. I’ll recap that in more detail for you in a moment.
We’ll be bringing you the news all day, free for all readers, and remember my colleague Broede Carmody is also covering the non-COVID news over at the national blog.
Thanks for joining us.
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