A Covid outbreak at Melbourne’s Holiday Inn hotel has forced returned travellers to be evacuated and 135 staff into 14-day quarantine – as health authorities reveal a nebuliser likely spread the virus.

A food and beverage worker and a returned traveller tested positive on Tuesday after another hotel employee tested positive on Sunday.    

Guests began the transfer process to the Pullman Hotel in Melbourne from 8am on Wednesday ‘to quarantine an extended number of days’. 

The agency in charge of the quarantine program said the hotel was ‘closed until further notice for terminal cleaning, with detailed contact tracing and investigations underway’.

Hotel quarantine guests were seen marching into buses while wearing lavender-scented bin bags

Guests began being transferred from the Holiday Inn (pictured) to the Pullman Melbourne from 8am on Wednesday morning to quarantine an extended number of days 

Prof Sutton said it’s suspected the source of the transmission in the Holiday Inn hotel was a nebuliser – a machine used to change liquid medication into a vapour that can be inhaled 

‘All staff and residents at the hotel during the exposure period of January 27 and February 9 are considered primary close contacts and need to quarantine,’ the spokesperson said.

‘Approximately 135 staff across all programs at the hotel were stood down last night and instructed to quarantine for 14 days at home and get retested.

‘So that we can rule out any potential coronavirus transmission while investigations are continuing, CQV has informed 48 residents at the hotel that they are considered primary close contacts.’

It’s expected the Holiday Inn will remain closed for at least a week while health authorities investigate the ventilation system. 

The three Holiday Inn cases were likely linked to a floor with known Covid-positive guests – including a family of three. 

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said it’s suspected the source of the transmission was a nebuliser – a machine used to change liquid medication into a vapour that can be inhaled.

Tracksuit-wearing quarantine guests move from the Holiday Inn hotel to awaiting buses wearing bin liners

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews reminded Victorians to get tested with even the mildest symptoms 

Health workers are seen testing people for Covid19 at Royal Melbourne Showgrounds on Monday

Doctors walked hotel guests from the lobby to awaiting buses taking them to the Pullman hotel

‘[The theory is] these three cases are related to an exposure event that involved a medical device called a nebuliser and it vaporises medication or liquid into a fine mist,’ he told reporters. 

‘That mist can be suspended in the air with fine particles. We think the exposures are to that event, this nebuliser whereby the virus was carried out into the corridor and exposed the authorised officer, the food and beverage service worker and also the other resident.

‘That makes sense in terms of the geography and it makes sense in terms of the exposure time.’

He said health officials needed to continue to investigate every intervention possible to better protect hotel quarantine workers and guests.

‘All I can say is bring on the vaccine,’ he said.  

Returned travellers from the same floor as the woman who left quarantine on Sunday must now go into isolation for another 14 days. Staff who worked on it will follow suit.

Meanwhile, two schools in Melbourne’s northwest have been shut down after seven nearby venues were listed as hotspots. 

Melbourne’s quarantine cases:

February 3 – A 26-year old man tested positive for Covid-19 after working at Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt Hotel as a resident security support officer for the Australian Open tennis quarantine program.

February 7 – A woman in her 50s working in hotel quarantine at the Holiday Inn Melbourne Airport recorded a positive test for the highly contagious UK Covid variant.

It is not known how she contracted the virus with authorities claiming no protocol breaches were found on CCTV. 

February 9 – A food and beverage worker at the Holiday Inn Melbourne Airport tested positive for coronavirus

– A second infection was also recorded on Tuesday with a woman who had left hotel quarantine on Sunday returning a positive test.

– A third infection was recorded on Tuesday night from another hotel worker

St Anne’s Catholic Primary School in Sunbury and Salesian College Sunbury were both closed on Wednesday.

The schools shut their gates to teachers and students as a ‘precautionary measure’ despite not being listed as public exposure sites.   

‘Some members of our community have been in close contact with a confirmed case, the only sensible thing to do is not take any risks,’ Salesian principal Mark Brockhus wrote to parents on Tuesday. 

‘I know this will come as a shock to many. However I hope that you can appreciate that we don’t want to take risks with this very transmissible virus.’

Health authorities overnight issued a notice of several new exposure sites including Sunny Life Massage, Bakers Delight, Aldente Deli, Sushi Sushi and Asian Star – all in Sunbury Square Shopping Centre in Sunbury – as well as Cellarbrations and PJ’s Pet Warehouse also in Sunbury. 

St Anne’s Catholic Primary School in Sunbury and Salesian College Sunbury were both closed on Wednesday

The schools shut their gates to teachers and students as a ‘precautionary measure’ despite not being listed as public exposure sites

Earlier, Premier Daniel Andrews said the state had no choice but to ‘make the best of what we have’ in the face of mounting program criticism.

‘There’s no federal facilities that are going to pop up anytime soon,’ he told reporters.

It comes as NSW Health issued an updated alert for anyone who recently stayed or worked at the Holiday Inn to immediately get tested and self-isolate for two weeks, regardless of the result.

The alert applies to anyone who worked or stayed on any floor of the hotel between January 27 and 9 February 9 as they are now considered close contacts.

An earlier alert only applied to anyone who stayed or worked on the third floor. 

‘Interviews with the individual are underway. Early indications are that the individual has not left her home since exiting Hotel Quarantine on February 7, other than to obtain a test in a CovidSafe setting,’ the Department of Health said.

The department said the woman tested negative on multiple instances during her quarantine at the hotel and left the facility on Sunday. 

She then sought to be tested again in response to the current outbreak at the Holiday Inn and received a positive test on Tuesday.  

At the Holiday Inn, guest arrangements on the affected floor have been pared back and Mr Sutton said authorities could close the hotel if the risk is found to extend beyond it

Those from the hotel who had just completed their quarantine on Sunday will be required to isolate again for another 14 days.  

Twelve Australian Defence Force workers and nine police officers who worked at the hotel were among those who have been ordered into self-quarantine after the positive result.  

Mr Sutton told reporters it appears the Holiday Inn Melbourne Airport cluster has originated from one floor.

‘[The investigation is] absolutely focused on that floor, and all the individuals who’ve been on that floor, staff or residents, are going to be in quarantine and go through the testing process,’ Professor Sutton said.

‘If there’s any indication that the risk extends beyond that floor, then it’s an option for us to close the hotel if need be.

‘The focus of our attention is on the transmission that might have occurred on the relevant floor where positive cases were known to be.’

Less than a week ago on February 3, a worker at Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt Hotel also became infected with the UK Covid variant – believed to be about 70 more contagious than the initial strain.

A law enforcement officer stands guard outside the Grand Hyatt hotel on February 4, 2021, as tennis players and officials arrive for a two-week quarantine period ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne

Health workers are seen testing people for Covid-19 at Royal Melbourne Showgrounds on Monday

But the issue of recent hotel quarantine infection breaches has not limited to Melbourne.  

Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth have all seen outbreaks spread within hotel quarantine facilities. 

Hotel quarantine workers are continuing to catch the disease from infected returned travellers despite the strict measures in place.

Some public health experts are now calling for Australia’s mandatory hotel quarantine program to be overhauled.  

Professor Adrian Esterman of the University of South Australia said hotels were not safe places to quarantine returned travellers.

‘They were not designed for this, and were only chosen because of the need to act fast,’ he told the Herald Sun.

‘Location in the middle of a city is not a good idea. Traditionally, quarantine stations have been located in remote areas for a very good reason. With a virus that can be transmitted by aerosol, the ventilation systems are a major problem,’ he added. 

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