Australia’s quarantine system makes sense

Q and A with epidemiologist Dr Zoë Hyde, from The University of Western Australia’s Medical School.

Following recent outbreaks of the COVID-19 virus into the community from quarantine hotels after returned travellers have been released, does Australia need to consider following in the footsteps of Singapore and Hong Kong and increase quarantine time from 14 to 21 days for travellers from some locations?

There’s evidence to suggest that people infected with some of the new variants of the virus might be infectious for a longer period. But I don’t think we need to worry about cases like this, because a negative test is required before leaving quarantine. A bigger problem is that the incubation period can sometimes be longer than 14 days, but this seems uncommon. Asking people to wear a mask and monitor for symptoms for a week after leaving quarantine is probably sufficient. However, what we must do is take action to prevent airborne transmission in hotel quarantine. If we continue to overlook this mode of transmission, we’ll continue to see people getting infected while in quarantine. This is the reason we’ve been having outbreaks.

Should the quarantine period be reduced for returned travellers who have been fully vaccinated for at least 14 days prior to arrival and stayed only in a low risk country for COVID-19 virus transmission?

The quarantine period should not be relaxed for vaccinated travellers, nor should they be allowed to quarantine at home instead of in a hotel. We’re incredibly fortunate that COVID-19 vaccines generally do an excellent job of preventing people from getting seriously ill. But they can’t always block transmission. Singapore recently documented a probable case of a fully vaccinated person transmitting the virus. Until we achieve herd immunity in Australia, we’ll be vulnerable to outbreaks.

“It would only take one infected person to spark an epidemic here, and so we need to continue to be very cautious until everyone has had a chance to be vaccinated.”

Dr Zoë Hyde

Should returned travellers also be grouped in quarantine hotels based on the transmission risk rating of the country they arrive from?

I don’t think this would add any value to Australia’s quarantine system, and I think proposals like this dodge the elephant in the room. It shouldn’t matter what country a person is returning from, nor whether they are more likely to be infected with a variant of concern. If we take airborne transmission seriously, we can safely accommodate everyone. The pandemic won’t end until we’ve vaccinated the world, and that’s a few years away. Australia will need a quarantine system for the foreseeable future, and so we need to invest in air-gapped, cabin style accommodation, based on the gold standard Howard Springs model.

Read More: Expert Series – Making sense of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout

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