Victoria records first overseas coronavirus case since hotel quarantine overhaul

Victoria has recorded its first overseas Covid-19 case in hotel quarantine since resuming international flights.

The state began accepting international arrivals on Thursday following a two-month suspension caused by outbreaks linked to its hotel quarantine program.

Those outbreaks involved the highly contagious UK variant and sparked a hard five-day lockdown.

It took less than two days from the resumption of international flights for the first Covid-19 case to appear among the newly returned travellers.

Victorian health authorities said on Saturday morning that the case was acquired overseas and the individual remained in hotel quarantine.

“The case is a flight passenger and is in hotel quarantine,” Victoria’s health department said in a statement.

No new locally acquired cases were recorded, continuing a 43-day Covid-free run.

The outbreak in mid-February prompted a major overhaul of the state’s quarantine system, aimed at combatting highly contagious variants.

It is now testing returned travellers much more frequently – up from twice to four times during their fortnight stay – and is only rostering staff that have had their first vaccine dose, at least. The vast majority of quarantine staff in Victoria have now received their first vaccine dose.

The state is also testing thousands of staff on the use of N95 masks.

Roughly 800 international passengers are expected to arrive each week in Victoria. That will increase to roughly 1,120 per week by mid-April.

The state government is also seeking to build a purpose-built quarantine facility, modelled on the highly successful Howard Springs operation in the Northern Territory. That plan is still in its early stages.

The case comes as the Morrison government’s vaccination program continues to face significant pressure.

The recommendation that AstraZeneca be avoided by under 50s, if possible, threatens to shake confidence in the vaccine, despite it being highly effective and overwhelmingly safe.

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced on Friday that he had ordered another 20m vaccines from Pfizer. They are not expected to arrive in Australia until late this year.

That leaves Australia’s vaccination rollout more reliant on deliveries from the government’s initial 20m order of Pfizer, which are arriving in batches of between 110,000 to 150,000. Another order of the as-yet unapproved Novavax vaccines is not expected to be ready for use for months.

Sydney University immunology and infectious disease specialist Prof Robert Booy said the AstraZeneca advisory would slow the rollout. But he said Australia was still in a strong position, without any real community transmission.

“Well, inevitably, it has to slow the rollout, but it is fantastic the government has already secured more doses of Pfizer and are in negotiation with other companies,” he told the ABC on Saturday.

“They know the vaccine is coming in three or four months as well. So we are still the lucky country, we still have an incredibly low rate of the disease, we’re still observing the social distancing, etc, but we can get on with the vaccination with the alternatives that are being put in place.”

Victorian health authorities wrote to the state’s health services on Friday, encouraging them to contact anyone under 50 who had booked in to receive their first AstraZeneca dose. They were urged to offer patients a rescheduling of their appointment, unless Pfizer could be offered.

“Until updated consent forms and consumer information are available from the Commonwealth Department of Health, and immunisation teams have been familiarised with these materials, it is advised that the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is not administered to eligible persons aged under 50 years,” Victoria’s health department said.

“When consent forms and consumer information from the Commonwealth are available, eligible persons for whom the benefits of protection against Covid-19 are likely to outweigh the risks of the side effect and who provide informed consent can receive the AstraZeneca vaccine. Appointments should not proceed until these resources are provided.”


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