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Inquiry finds virus tracking hampered by privacy laws

The Department of Health and Human Services was unable to notify staff at Cedar Meats of their potential exposure to the COVID‑19 virus during the early stages of the outbreak due to medical privacy laws.

The inquiry was told that the first case of COVID‑19 that could be directly traced to Cedar Meats occurred when a worker tested positive on April 24.

However the infected person only told health officials they worked for a labour hire firm, rather than Cedar Meats, and had not identified any close contacts at the abattoir.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton told the inquiry that this prevented DHHS from following up with other staff at the facility to advise them of their potential exposure to COVID‑19 because they were unable to share private medical information.

“The Department of Health and Human Services did not have access to data on the total number of individuals that may have been exposed to COVID‑19 at the Cedar Meats facility until nine days after the first case had been identified on 24 April 2020,” the report says.

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The report also notes that a number of GPs were aware of the Cedar Meats outbreak before it was public because workers had presented to them seeking testing.

“Better communication between the Department of Health and Human Services and General Practitioners could have mitigated the impact of the outbreak,” it says, recommending that better rules for communication in a pandemic be established.

A subsequent case was identified at Cedar Meats on April 26. A day later, DHHS contacted management to inform them about the infections and that an investigation into a potential cluster was commencing.

At least 111 cases, including 67 staff, were eventually linked to the outbreak.

A minority report, supported by Coalition MPs on the committee, recommended medical information should be disclosed during a state of emergency.

That minority report, which blasted the main one as politically biased, said Professor Sutton should have made it clear to the state government earlier that medical privacy laws were an impediment to contact tracing.

“In a state of emergency it makes no logical sense that a person must remain in isolation because they have tested positive to coronavirus, but their workplace cannot be informed of the reason in order to protect other workers and their families,” the minority report said.

“The Cedar Meats outbreak was preventable had the Andrews Government allowed contact tracers to do their job without restriction.”

The Coalition MPs also criticised DHHS for only notifying the labour hire firm about the positive case, rather than asking the infected staff member where they were working.

The inquiry heard that an earlier infection at Cedar Meats reported on April 2 was discounted as having originated at the facility. That worker told authorities they were not infectious while working at Cedar Meats and could not have caught the virus there, with flight records checked to corroborate the information.

Abattoirs have been a regular site of outbreaks in Victoria during the pandemic, with close working conditions and refrigeration proving particularly challenging in preventing infections.

PPE concerns

The report found health professionals’ experience in accessing personal protective equipment (PPE) varied.

It broadly found state-run organisations could access the PPE they needed, while those relying on the Commonwealth’ stockpile – particularly GPs and aged care providers – sometimes experienced difficulties.

However, it also found that hospital staff felt there had been insufficient or inconsistent training on how to properly use PPE.

The committee recommended that the department “work with the health sector to develop a comprehensive pandemic preparedness training program for healthcare workers including proper use of personal protective equipment”.

Homelessness support

An increasing number of people from “middle Australia” accessed homelessness services for the first time as the coronavirus pandemic took hold and governments announced strict lockdown measures to suppress the spread of COVID-19.

The federal government’s income support packages, JobKeeper and JobSeeker, and the state’s moratorium on rental eviction prevented a “deluge” of middle-class Victorians from plunging into homelessness, the report found.

The committee heard from a range of people and providers, including homelessness, tenant and domestic violence services, all reporting an increase in demand.

Tenants Victoria recorded a 400 per cent increase to their services after the Victorian government started introducing restrictions, including shutting down some businesses, designed to suppress the spread of coronavirus.

Consumer Affairs Victoria reported almost 18,000 reduced rent agreements had been lodged through its website by July 5 – this equates to about 3 per cent of the total number of Victorian households renting. The average weekly reduction in rent was $155, or 27 per cent.

“National and state legislation such as JobKeeper, JobSeeker and Victoria’s eviction moratorium have protected some Victorians who may have been at risk of homelessness,” the committee found in its interim report.

“Evidence from the homelessness sector suggests that during the period March to May, the sector experienced an increase in demand for its services in general, and from segments of the Victorian community that had not accessed these services in the past.

“There are concerns from the sector that the economic effects of the COVID‑19 restrictions could lead to further demands on services and more homelessness.”

The committee also recommended the state government develop a strategy to improve access to mental health support in regional and rural Victoria, following evidence the pandemic disproportionately affected people outside of Melbourne.

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Disadvantaged communities cop fines

Victoria’s three most disadvantaged communities accounted for 10 per cent of police fines for failures to comply with COVID-19 restrictions.

Residents in the Central Goldfields Shire and the cities of Greater Dandenong and Brimbank were issued a combined 529 fines by police over the first two months of restrictions, to May 19.

In contrast, Victoria’s three most advantaged communities based on a socio-economic index of the 80 local government areas – Nillumbik Shire in Melbourne’s outer north-east and the inner-city councils of Bayside and Boroondara – accounted for 1.9 per cent of fines issued by May 19.

Residents in those three areas were issued a combined 85 fines for non-compliance over that period. Victoria Police issued 5600 fines from more than 47,000 compliance checks by May 19, although some fines were later cancelled or are under review.

The Department of Justice and Community told the committee it was working with police to ensure there was no disproportionate impact on disadvantaged communities.

However, the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service raised concerns that fines could compound existing disadvantage.

The service highlighted the example of a homeless Indigenous man who was fined for sleeping on a park bench.

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