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Brisbane lockdown unlikely but growing fears over threat from northern neighbours

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Authorities may have contained the latest Brisbane outbreak but they are alarmed by the scale of the threat posed by Papua New Guinea.

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Genomic sequencing has shown that a returned traveller at the Hotel Grand Chancellor tested positive to the UK variant of COVID-19 and somehow infected a traveller on the same floor and later, a doctor at the Princess Alexandra Hospital.

Hundreds of potential contacts at the hotel, hospital, and public places visited by the doctor are now being traced and tested. The hotel and hospital are in lockdown, and people who left during the critical period of March 5-9 are either being quarantined or isolated.

While it may be another 24 hours before Queensland Health can rule out further community transmission, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk today said 86 tests of potential contacts had come back negative.

Of the six new cases of COVID-19 detected in Queensland overnight, all were returned travellers in quarantine, and two came from Papua New Guinea.

Palaszczuk revealed that half of the 500 tests that Queensland Health had done in PNG, to support local health services, had come back positive.

Queensland Health had already diverted COVID-19 vaccines to the Torres Strait and banned charter flights from Papua New Guinea, but Palaszczuk and Health Minister Yvette D’Ath are seeking urgent talks with the Commonwealth to bolster defences even more.

Palaszczuk flagged the possibility of further travel restrictions on Australia’s closest neighbour and some of the vaccines sourced by Australia being diverted to PNG.

“I think it’s a serious situation up there so I think we need to look at … our coordinated response,” Palaszczuk said.

D’Ath said every week, Queensland was seeing returned travellers from PNG with COVID-19 – this month there have been 26 cases in total. Reflecting on the test results showing one in every two people were positive, she said “that’s quite extraordinary and that’s quite concerning”.

The influx in cases from PNG, and an increase in lower-level emergency matters, last week put the Cairns Hospital on ‘code yellow’ due to a bed shortage. COVID-19 patients have since been evacuated to Brisbane to help spread the burden.

Australia is sticking with the hotel quarantine regime, despite evidence that the UK strain can escape into the community. Talks between the Queensland and federal governments over a possible remote quarantine facility at Toowoomba are at an impasse.

Deputy Chief Health Officer Sonia Bennett said it was not known how the virus had spread at the Hotel Grand Chancellor but it was not linked to the previous cases that led to Greater Brisbane being placed into lockdown.

In the latest incident, the infected guests were both on the first floor but their rooms were not close, and CCTV footage has yet to show any breaches. She said the hotel would continue to be used for quarantine.

“We know that some people are highly infectious … and can transmit the virus through very little exposure,” Bennett said.

Bennett again praised the hospital doctor for acting swiftly when her symptoms emerged and said it may have avoided the need for another city-wide lockdown.

Hospitals, aged care and disability services facilities are currently not accepting visitors.

“Right now, at the moment, we don’t perceive that there’s a risk out in the community,” Bennett said.

“We’re doing the public health response now to confirm that.”

D’Ath said another 11,000 people would be vaccinated this week and Queensland was “absolutely on track”. Frontline workers have been prioritised, however the infected doctor did not normally treat COVID-19 patients and had yet to receive her first shot.

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