Updated, Wednesday June 16, 8.30am
The announcement of six Covid-19 infections in a Melbourne strata scheme, with residents in the 100-unit townhouse complex now in lockdown, has raised alarm with the Owners Corporation Network which says that the NSW Government has not acknowledged the increased risk of transmission of COVID-19 to residents in apartment buildings.
While Victorian authorities try to contain the spread of the virus from an aged care facility through residents of the strata scheme, the peak owners’ body in NSW says their warnings that this could happen in NSW have been ignored.
Health officials in Melbourne believe the infections were spread through common areas such as corridors and the underground parking area. It’s worth noting that the units in the complex have their own front doors, so common area interaction is considerably less than it would be in a high-rise apartment block.
Writing to NSW Health back in February, the OCN said: “The issues related to apartment buildings have gone under the radar as health authorities have had to focus on higher risk locations such as nursing homes, and on border control and the national Hotel Quarantine Program (HQP).”
Even as new, more contagious variants of the virus have emerged, OCN says their warnings, that there was a danger of strata scheme residents and workers taking the virus back to apartment blocks, have been more or less dismissed.
“In NSW, OCN has raised the risk of transmission in apartment building on more than one occasion,” a spokesperson told Flat Chat.
“This year OCN raised the matter again because Health NSW will not acknowledge that apartment buildings are potential exposure sites. Residents would appreciate being advised to get tested directly rather than hearing it through the media,” the OCN spokesperson said.
“There has been no reply from the Minister for Health.”
Four months later, it’s the combination of the transmission of the virus to the strata schemes by people who work in infection sites, and the apparent spread of the virus in a strata block’s common areas, that has alarmed OCN.
The spread of infections to Melbourne’s Kings Park townhouse complex is more or less what the apartment owners’ organisation predicted four months ago, albeit this time it’s via a resident working in an infected aged care facility.
“It is now evident that casual security guards working in COVID-19 quarantine hotels are also working in high-rise apartment buildings in Sydney,” the OCN wrote in February.
“It is common for high-rise apartment buildings to employ a security guard. Importantly, the role of a guard in an apartment building is not static. It involves working as concierge; frequent direct contact with residents and visitors, and patrolling indoor areas, floors and common facilities.”
One of the problems is that no one knows how many security guards are working both in quarantine hotels and apartment blocks.
“The workforce is casualised, low paid, working across multiple sites and for different employers,” said the OCN which said in the document they sent to the Health Minister that they had found that seven per cent of members of the security industry worked in HQPs.
“There has been long-standing frustration that DOH does not communicate with strata owners and residents, even when their building is the site of COVID-19 exposure.
“This has caused distress for residents who see police or medical staff in full PPE entering their building. It also undermines Building Managers and Strata Committees responsible for cleaning and maintenance of building services and the common property environment.”
A spokesperson for NSW Health responded overnight, outlining the extensive testing and tracing methods used for workers in quarantine hotels, but there was no reference made specifically to apartment blocks.
“Comprehensive infection prevention and control standards are in place for every returned traveller in the NSW hotel quarantine system, all of whom are treated as potentially infectious upon arrival in NSW,” the spokesperson said.
“All staff working in NSW quarantine hotels undergo daily COVID-19 surveillance testing using a saliva test. This includes health staff, cleaners, security, police and defence personnel.
“All staff working in Special Health Accommodation also have a weekly test using the standard method of nasopharyngeal swabs, in addition to the daily saliva test.
“Strict infection control and prevention practices, including the appropriate use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as face masks and gloves, are in place at all points within the program, with guidance and training provided by the Clinical Excellence Commission.
“These practices are continuously reviewed and enhanced according to international best practice. Education and training is provided to all staff involved at each point of the NSW quarantine program. All of the agencies involved in the NSW Airport Operations and Quarantine program have extensive audit programs in place to ensure compliance. These are continually reviewed and enhanced.
“NSW Health’s expert contact tracers use a range of systems and software to contact people who are identified as contacts of COVID-19 cases, or who may be at risk of contracting COVID-19. “
“The contact-tracing process is supported by a range of other communication measures, including regular media conferences, daily media releases and public health alerts, daily video updates, social media and information on the NSW Health website to alert people who may be casual contacts who have not been identified in other ways, and to reinforce the important public health messages.”
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