from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Herding Cats … or … It’s Coming your Way.

Rottnest Island off Fremantle, Perth, West Australia. Wouldn’t you come here just to stay in this Quarantine Village?

February 8, 2021

This week our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, hosted a ‘National Cabinet’ meeting. This is his extra-political Covid-19 group, an ‘intergovernmental decision-making forum’ including the State and Territory Premiers and Chief Ministers. It is apparent that this is a challenging business for the Prime Minister and one where decisions in a time of pandemic are important to get right – for our country and for his political future. Eleven months have passed since this group was formed and the various state leaders are getting more and more techy and determined in their self-opiniated ways of dealing with Covid-19. (5 Labor, 3 Liberal politicians) . For the PM it must be like herding eight feral cats through a narrow door.

Obviously, Prime Minister Scott Morrison would like the gathering of premiers and ministers to discuss the issues relating to the pandemic in a reasonable, if not rational way. Everyone, of course, says they are following the science of medical advice. The trouble is there are various medical advisors and interpretations.

The issue of quarantining returning Australians from overseas (and various other travellers) is one that divides and stresses our states’ leaders. The press calls these differences, ‘deep rifts’. The Labour Premier of Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and the ultra-cautious West Australian Premier, Mark McGowan, would like the federal government to be more proactive in the face of the new more contagious strains of Covid 19. Everyone loves to have someone to blame.

The numbers of travellers are small. Over 210,000 international travellers have gone into hotel quarantine in Australia. 1.4% have returned a positive Covid test. 82 hotel staff involved in the quarantine process became infected. At the moment, just over 6,000 Australians (and tennis players!) are arriving per week directly into the various major cities. The states are responsible for their own quarantine systems and have thus reacted in different ways. Recently, Western Australia had a severe five-day lockdown after a single worker in the Sheraton Hotel contracted the virus – perhaps through airflow. He had a second job as an Uber or rideshare driver. Victoria and NSW recently each had single quarantine workers infected and those states used ‘hotspot’ strategy, finding out where the individual had travelled while infected.

The sporadic infections in quarantine continue. There is the story of how one quarantined family opened the door of their hotel room to gather in their meal, deposited in the corridor, and managed to infect the family across the hallway. So now we are becoming aware that the virus is far more airborne than previously thought. It is likely to travel through air conditioning systems in large establishments like quarantine hotels.

So the question is: should quarantining decisions be delegated to states? Are hotels suitable quarantine facilities? It appears that hotels have multiple gaps in their infection prevention systems. For example, corridors need separate ventilations systems; quarantine workers should not have second jobs and should wear masks even in corridors (perhaps double masks as they are recommending overseas).

So now our federal government is in process of investigating whether to organise remote quarantine stations outside of our major cities – more like refugee villages. Perhaps in Toowoomba outside of Brisbane or remote islands. Thus, our cities would be protected and we can lessen the impact on our lives in 2021-2022-2023. The support staff and health staff would be isolated in these camps as well. The Prime Minister compares this idea to fly-in fly-out remote mining camps where you stay for two weeks at a time. Rottnest Island has aleady been used for Vasco da Gama cruise passengers in March last year. Remember that Australia is a country of a few major cities and lots of space. (16 out of 25 million live in the 6 major cities).

Hardly a mining camp! Rottnest Island off Fremantle, WA

I think that all countries should take note. This is probably the way of the future. Can you imagine the situation when most people are vaccinated, but, with international travel, people arrive from across the world and require quarantine? We will have sporadic outbreaks for years to come. Maybe new strains will be arriving having bred in the countries that could not get access to enough vaccine. Maybe the virus will become less deadly, maybe our vaccines can be adapted fast enough and given out fast enough to dampen down the world threat. Reading about how wealthy countries are hoarding vaccine supplies and how third world countries are struggling to get access, I am not optimistic.

My daughter in Seattle was told by a friend working in childcare that they were advised that this situation may continue for years to come. Up to 2025. We could be living in a world of social distancing, sporadic outbreaks, new strains with strange numbering systems, reduced local and international travel and concern about all sorts of flu-like symptoms.

Our PM is now talking about vaccination rollout starting at the end of this month. Bearing in mind that the AstraZeneca vaccine is now in question.

‘On Monday morning South African authorities said they would suspend use of the AstraZeneca shot after clinical data showed it gave minimal protection against B.1.351, a variant of SARS-CoV-2 which contains several mutations that cut the ability of antibodies to neutralise the virus. (Sydney Morning Herald – Monday 8 Feb, 2021).

‘Know your virus variants

Three mutant varieties of COVID-19, first spotted in the UK, South Africa and Brazil, are more resistant to vaccines than the original strain.

The British B.1.1.7 variant was first seen in September.

  • There is some evidence, although not concrete, that the new variant may be slightly more deadly.
  • At this stage, evidence suggests the variant slightly reduces the effect of vaccine-generated antibodies but not enough to pose major problems.
  • The variant has several mutations that seem to make it significantly more transmissible. It has rapidly spread through the United Kingdom and is now emerging across the world.

South Africa’s B.1.351 is also known as N501Y.V2.
It was first spotted in South Africa in October last year.  

  • It concerns scientists because it has picked up a large number of different mutations. 
  • These mutations may make it more transmissible. It is not known if they make it more deadly. 
  • Human data suggests, but does not prove, these mutations allow the virus to reinfect people who have natural immunity to COVID-19. 
  • Early data suggests the variant’s mutations cut the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, by varying amounts depending on the vaccine.

Less is known about the  P.1 variant first spotted in Brazil.

  • It bears similar mutations to the South African variant, which scientists suspect may give it the ability to evade antibodies.’

(Sydney Morning Herald – Monday 8 Feb, 2021).