There is a strong possibility that officials in NSW Health who helped residents and managers with the potential Covid-19 outbreak at the Elan building in Sydney’s Kings Cross are feeling pretty pleased with themselves this week.
After all, coronavirus did not spread from an infected resident to any of the other 500 or so apartment dwellers in the 300-unit block. And it was done with the minimum of fuss and without treating apartment residents across NSW any different from anyone else.
In fact, other residents were told to toddle off into the community to find a covid testing station, then lock themselves down as soon as they got back. Do not pass Go, do not collect any croissants on the way back
But with the heartfelt gratitude of the Elan strata committee and managers ringing in their ears, for the advice they did give (albeit, after the matter), NSW Health officials seem to be deaf to the growing anger in the strata community at their lack of preventative guidelines specifically for apartments.
What’s the problem? Nobody got infected, okay? Yes, but we know the Delta variant of the virus can be spread just by breathing the same air as infected people. That’s how the Bondi surge started.
We also know that the infection can be spread by people passing in apartment block common property. That’s how the Kings Park infections were spread in Melbourne’s Southbank.
And we know that many if not most people wait for a clear signal from the government before they mask up, as anyone who has travelled on public transport immediately before or after a “masks on” edict has come into effect will appreciate.
So why is there no government advice to strata committees to tell their residents to wear masks on common property, especially in lifts?
Why are there no specific protocols available to apartment blocks to advise their committees, managers and residents? What’s the harm in the state government telling apartment owners to wear masks when they are likely to pass each other in lifts, lobbies, foyers and car parks?
Even if it’s just advice rather than an order, it has to be an improvement on instructions to wear masks indoors in public places except residential properties. And the authorities previous protestations that they don’t want to interfere in people’s private lives when so much of strata is shared space is just pathetic.
Okay, lifts, lobbies and car parks may not technically be public space, but the’re not purely residential either.
As reported in this story, NSW Health doesn’t think apartment residents are a special case, and it believes there are “enough measures in place to keep everyone – no matter where they lived – safe.”
If the Elan and its near neighbour, the Altair, were typical, that might be true. But they’re not. Both buildings and some near neighbours have highly professional strata managers, building managers and active and engaged strata committees.
In that regard, they are the exception, rather than the rule. What about the big blocks where the strata managers aren’t seen from one AGM to the next, the strata committee members refuse to provide residents with their mobile numbers or email addresses and the only communication is the quarterly levies notice and the occasional by-law breach warning?
At least half the residents will be tenants anyway so they might not even enjoy that basic level of contact. Things were very different at Kings Park in Melbourne where, rather than send 500 residents back into the community to find their own way to a Covid testing facility, a pop-up testing station was set up in the foyer of the unit block and 200 residents were tested.
In an interview with ABC News, Professor Nathan Grills, a public health physician from the University of Melbourne’s Nossal Institute, said an apartment complex could be “very similar” to a hotel quarantine environment.
“You’ve got common areas that people have to walk through, stairwells and corridors, and you’ve got people who may be infectious or infected walking through those areas at the same time as other people are coming and going from their apartments,” he said.
“If that apartment complex itself has been, in effect, locked down, you would hope there would be no spread,” he said. “In some ways, we’ve almost recreated the hotel quarantine scenario and we have to be careful in how we respond to that.”
He said the department’s actions, such as bringing in nurses and other staff to support people quarantining for 14 days were “very appropriate”.
Just to put this in perspective, as soon as the Covid infection was found, both the Elan and Altair – two of the nearest buildings to the Frankie’s Beans hotspot – immediately put up notices asking residents to wear masks on common property.
Both blocks have sophisticated protocols for dealing with visitors, deliveries and self-isolating close contacts. As a direct beneficiary of these measures, I have nothing but praise.
But by leaving everything to chance in Greater Sydney’s other strata schemes, especially the mega-blocks with little or no sense of community, or the smaller blocks with no professional management, NSW Health and their chums in Fair Trading may be playing Russian roulette with residents’ health at zero cost.
“The NSW strata sector is calling for greater clarity in public health orders for apartment complexes,” Karen Stiles, executive officer of the apartment-owners’ peak body, the Owners Corporation Network, told Sue Williams in a story for Domain. “The truth is there is no strata voice at the table.
“This is why we have been calling for a Commissioner for Strata Living. We need someone … who understands how apartment buildings and apartment communities work. NSW Health has failed to address the unique needs of apartment complexes when developing orders.”
She said the NSW Government needs to provide guidance on protocols that should be put into place when any apartment residents test positive to the Delta strain of the virus.
“Can visitors be excluded?” she asked. “Can we mandate masks in indoor areas within a scheme? These communities rely on cooperation but there needs to be legal clarity to reduce conflict.”
A spokesperson at the Department of Health said on Friday that apartment residents didn’t merit being a special case, and that there were plenty of measures in place to keep everyone safe, no matter where they lived.
Let’s hope their – and Sydney strata residents’ – luck holds out. It would be a shame if their hubris at not wanting to even address the issue of prevention in strata schemes led to another serious surge in infections.
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