The Age newspaper has reported that “patient zero” in Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus was a night duty manager at Melbourne’s Rydges on Swanston hotel, which was being used as a quarantine hotel for returned overseas travellers.
In June, Premier Daniel Andrews said a “genomic sequencing” briefing he had received connected a “significant number” of cases in the north of Melbourne to hotel quarantine.
He said the cases, detected in late May and early June, could be linked to people working in hotel quarantine breaching infection control protocols.
But it is unclear exactly how these cases leaked from hotel quarantine into the community, contributing to a devastating second outbreak that has contributed to more than 100 deaths, thousands of infections and the shutdown of much of the state’s economy.
Here’s what we know, what we don’t know, and what we may never know.
What we know:
The Age reported that leaked emails showed that on May 25, a night duty manager at Rydges on Swanston reported he had come down with a fever.
It reported that by late the next day, officials at the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions had been told the man had tested positive.
The following day, the staff member’s infection was announced during Mr Andrews’ daily press conference.
We know that a hotel staff member was the first publicly reported case at the hotel, apart from returned travellers.
On May 27, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a case had been detected in a staff member at the hotel.
The same day, the hotel confirmed separately that a staff member had tested positive to COVID-19.
The number of cases linked to the hotel quickly grew.
The next day, a contracted security guard working as part of the government-run hotel quarantine program was confirmed as a positive case.
By June 19, 17 cases had been linked to the hotel.
What we don’t know:
It is unclear how the staff member became infected.
We don’t know for sure the staff member contracted the virus at work, and if they did, how.
There is no suggestion of any improper behaviour on the part of the staff member.
We don’t know exactly how other cases linked to the outbreak, such as in contracted security guards, acquired their infections.
Just because someone is diagnosed first, it does not necessarily mean they contracted the virus first.
On May 28, when the second case linked to the hotel was announced, Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said it was not clear how the second person had become infected but there “wasn’t very much overlap” in the work schedules of the staff member and the security guard.
We don’t know whether the staff member transmitted the virus to anyone else at the hotel or in the community.
A Rydges spokesperson said today the staff member isolated immediately after getting tested, and the staff member’s family contacts, as well as their colleagues at the hotel had tested negative.
Mr Andrews has not released the genomic sequencing information that he said linked many cases in Victoria’s second wave to hotel quarantine, so we don’t know whether this work links cases in the community to particular returned travellers or particular quarantine hotels.
Asked at today’s press conference whether the staff member was “patient zero”, Mr Andrews said he did not know.
“I don’t have any advice about who that person might be,” the Premier said.
He said the question might be determined by the inquiry into hotel quarantine being led by former Family Court judge Jennifer Coate.
Professor Sutton was also asked to comment but declined, saying he could not provide details that might identify a person.
What we may never know:
Mr Andrews said it might not be possible to conclusively determine the source of Victoria’s second wave.
“I think that whole notion that we could necessarily have, to that degree of certainty, clarity about one particular person, I don’t know the science would ever lead you to that. It could, but it may not.”
Professor Sutton has previously spoken about the difficulty of tracing the origin of outbreaks.
Last month, when asked about how the virus might have entered Melbourne’s public housing towers, he said it was difficult to pinpoint the source of such outbreaks.
“Sometimes the first case that’s notified to us is not the first case in an outbreak,” Professor Sutton said.
“Sometimes the first person who develops symptoms is not the first person who’s been exposed. So it is tricky in that regard.”
Last week, he spoke about the limitations of the genomic testing, saying it was not always possible to grow the virus in order to determine “genetic footprint” of each positive case.