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State’s mounting COVID caseload exposes cracks in health response

Three days later, Ms Craig received an email saying she was cleared as a carrier.

Ms Craig said other details, such as the date her symptoms began, had been incorrectly added to her file along with a wrong mobile phone number, which meant she did not receive early texts.

The same day she received another message indicating she may be free to leave isolation.

The same day she received another message indicating she may be free to leave isolation.

Ms Craig’s friend, Rosie, a physiotherapy student who also spoke to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, said she, too, received conflicting DHHS text messages about her health status, leading both women to believe the department had duplicated their files.

Rosie, who asked that her surname not be published, said despite testing positive to COVID-19, none of her housemates had been contacted by DHHS officials.

Ms Craig said she found it difficult to comprehend the bureaucracy’s handling of their cases. “I understand it’s hard. At the same time, this didn’t happen overnight,” she said.

On Monday, Olivia Craig received a message from DHHS acknowledging she was a positive COVID-19 case.

On Monday, Olivia Craig received a message from DHHS acknowledging she was a positive COVID-19 case.

“COVID’s been in Australia for months. I find it hard to believe there was no planning for having a couple of hundred cases a day.”

Of the 357 new cases reported on Saturday, only 37 were linked to known clusters. The others are the among more than 2600 cases being investigated.

Analysis of DHHS data shows that as of Friday, more than 1000 cases had been under investigation for more than a week in an attempt to narrow down the source of infection. At the beginning of the pandemic, investigations could be expected to be closed within days.

The DHHS did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

To help contain community transmission, Defence teams on Saturday moved into Colac where a meatworks outbreak had infected 43 people.

There were also several new outbreaks of COVID-19, including 10 cases connected to courier company StarTrack in Laverton, west of Melbourne.

A further five infections were linked to a KFC store in Truganina, also to the city’s west. Bingo Recycling in West Melbourne recorded seven cases and there were five at Probe Group in the CBD.

Four cases have come out of the Catholic Regional College in Sydenham, while the city’s Chancellor Hotel and D’Orsogna Meats in Mickleham were the site of two cases each.

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, on Saturday confirmed five more people had died overnight, including four women in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s and one man in his 80s. To date, 61 Victorians have died of COVID-19.

Professor Sutton indicated the consistently high daily numbers and “really difficult to manage” outbreaks meant the August 20 best-case date for easing stage three restrictions in Melbourne and Mitchell Shire was in doubt.

“This will have quite a tail, even if we see numbers start to drop in the next week or two. But it is not going to be something that suddenly disappears in the way that wave one did,” Professor Sutton said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt on Saturday revealed that about 260 Victorian aged care residents were suffering from coronavirus.

Infectious diseases physician Professor Peter Collignon, from the Australian National University, said the mortality rate among aged-care residents was about one in five, meaning at least 50 elderly Victorians were statistically at risk of dying in the next two weeks.

While Victoria had 41 people in intensive care on Saturday, Professor Sutton said many elderly patients would go directly to palliative care before dying.

A masked Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on his way to his press conference on Saturday.

A masked Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on his way to his press conference on Saturday. Credit:Simon Schluter

To bolster contact tracing efforts, Premier Daniel Andrews has called in the Defence Force to doorknock people who have failed to answer phone calls from contact-tracing teams.

The government has been spruiking the growth of the contact-tracing team, which has expanded to more than 2000 people (about 1000 of them in the call centre) however figures show it actually decreased its capacity in the weeks leading up to Victoria’s second wave.

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald can also reveal the DHHS outbreak squad, which was tasked with proactive visits to places of heightened infection risk, visited the public housing towers in North Melbourne and Flemington for the first time on July 3 – one day before COVID-19 was deemed so rife that residents were placed on hard lockdown.

Neither postcode was in the original list of hotspots announced by Mr Andrews on June 30 and the government has offered no explanation for the time taken to visit the towers other than to say “extra infection control measures were put in place at all towers months earlier”.

The federal government’s COVIDSafe app was designed to help health authorities in times like these, but is yet to find a Victorian close contact not already located by manual tracing methods. In NSW, however, it has found six people not already contacted.

Victoria’s contact-tracing team was still investigating 2696 cases as of Friday afternoon.
At the same time, the infection source for 55 per cent of the 1883 Victorians who tested positive for coronavirus between July 12-18 was still unknown.

Figures from DHHS show contact tracing staff capacity was 1179 in April before dipping to 1002 in May. Capacity was still only 1077 through June before increasing to 1300 at the end of the month.

Health officials have also closed testing for most asymptomatic cases. Professor Sutton said infections were far more likely to be found in symptomatic cases and warned of a “false reassurance” when testing random people showing no symptoms.

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