Capacity overwhelmed as hundreds race to get tested in Shepparton
A truck driver from Melbourne who spread coronavirus into Shepparton has sparked a rush for testing that has quickly overwhelmed the regional city's capacity as health authorities scramble to avert a disastrous wave of infections.
The truck driver, a family member of an employee infected in the recent outbreak at the Butcher Club in Chadstone, is the same man who sparked an outbreak in Kilmore after sitting down to eat in a cafe there last month.
The Age understands the man also transmitted the virus to his elderly father. The truck driver, his partner and son all tested positive to COVID-19 and are all still in quarantine.
Government testing chief Jeroen Weimar said the man, who has a worker permit to travel regionally, revealed some details of the trip he took on September 30 but told contact tracers he'd also gone to Shepparton and Benalla only when he was reinterviewed on Tuesday – more than a fortnight later.
"It is obviously hugely concerning that the information about the Shepparton stop wasn't divulged at the time that we were dealing with Kilmore 10 to 12 days ago," Mr Weimar said.
"Had we had that information at the time we could have jumped on the Shepparton situation much more quickly.”
Victoria Police confirmed on Wednesday night the man's case had been referred from DHHS. Police would now determine whether any criminal offences had been committed, a spokesman said.
There were seven fresh cases across the state on Wednesday, bringing Victoria’s 14-day average to 10.1.
Five more deaths were reported on Wednesday. The latest deaths include a woman in her 70s, two men in their 80s and two women in their 90s. Four of the five deaths are linked to aged-care outbreaks.
NSW reported twice as many cases as Victoria, recording 14 new infections, including 11 cases which were locally transmitted.
Three of Victoria’s seven new cases are linked to the Shepparton outbreak and there are fears the virus has seeded itself further, with more positive cases expected in the coming days.
"There are infections in Shepparton today that we know of and there is almost certainly going to be more that were all completely preventable if this individual had told the full story," Mr Andrews said.
By 2.30pm on Wednesday, local testing capacity at two pop-up sites in Shepparton were swamped. Hundreds queued for hours with asymptomatic people turned away and others told to come back on Thursday.
Goulburn Valley Health conducted hundreds of tests on Wednesday.
Mr Weimar said a new drive-through testing station would open on Thursday. Australian Defence Force personnel and members of nearby rapid response teams would also boost capacity for testing. He apologised to those who had spent so long in queues waiting to be tested.
The truck driver reportedly said he did not know he was infected with the deadly virus when he drove hundreds of kilometres across the state for work on September 30.
He broke the rules for people from metropolitan Melbourne by eating at the Oddfellows cafe in Kilmore, spawning six cases, before heading north to Shepparton and visiting Central Tyre Service and the local Bunnings, seeding another outbreak. He also stopped in Benalla at White Line Tyres.
Mr Andrews said the man had a permit to travel to regional locations, including Kilmore, Benalla and Shepparton, but he had breached restrictions by attending a number of locations, including Bunnings.
"What I can confirm is the driver on September 30 ... was under obligations not to attend any local restaurant, cafe, Bunnings or any other retail activity outside of regional Victoria," he said.
"There have been a number of breaches of those core principles."
A symptomatic Shepparton woman, who works at Central Tyre Service tested positive to the virus over the weekend. A dozen of her colleagues were tested on Tuesday with two more being found to be positive for COVID-19.
White Line Tyres in Benalla has also been identified as a high-risk location. Anyone who went there around midday on September 30 is urged to get tested. No cases have so far been detected in Benalla.
Epidemiologist Adrian Esterman from the University of South Adelaide suspects the truck driver may have been a "super-spreader".
Mounting scientific evidence points to most COVID-19 positive people not spreading the virus widely, with most infections spread by just 20 per cent of those infected.
“He could have been shedding a lot of virus and potentially he was a super-spreader,” Professor Esterman said
The professor said the clusters in regional Victoria caused by just one person should not derail the easing of restrictions in Victoria on Sunday.
“Some restrictions are going to be lifted on Sunday in Victoria and it is my view that relaxing those restrictions would not have stopped this guy from inadvertently going to the countryside and spreading the disease anyway,” he said.
A number of Shepparton restaurants and cafes, a golf club, a hairdressing salon and a Bunnings store have been deemed danger zones with anyone who visited those sites urged to get tested and self-isolate for 14 days.
In a more aggressive approach to outbreak management, Mr Weimar also asked people who live in a house with a person who has visited one of the exposure sites to quarantine for 14 days.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the truck driver would have been in isolation on September 30 when he travelled to regional Victoria if the same strategy had been used during the Chadstone outbreak.
The agressive "third ring" strategy is an infection control measure Professor Esterman wants to see used for every outbreak in Victoria.
“The small numbers in Victoria mean you can really go for that intensive contact tracing and really crack down,” he said. “The contact tracers can easily handle the number of cases you’ve got right now in Victoria and probably a lot more cases than that.”
Professor Sutton said contact tracers faced an uphill battle in obtaining honest explanations from some COVID-19 positive Victorians about their movements and interactions.
When asked on Wednesday if phone records, and truck or work logs could be requested from the start of contact tracing to ensure people were telling the truth, Professor Sutton said it was being considered.
“If we have to interrogate, those powers are available,” he said. “We will use whatever tools are available if there is a need to interrogate further. But of course, we rely on people to tell the truth.”
Goulburn Valley Health chief executive Matt Sharp said he expected thousands of people to come forward to be tested in coming days.
“If they’ve been one of the identified five high-risk locations people should get tested immediately. Even if they don’t have symptoms we want people to come forward and be tested.”
Asked if the number of people asked to self-isolate as a precaution could reach the thousands, Mr Sharp said he could not rule anything out yet.
Australian Defence Force personnel were called in to Shepparton to help with testing.
Long queues formed at the two testing sites in Shepparton, which will extend their operating hours to remain open from 8am to 8pm on Thursday. Goulburn Valley Health was working to establish a third testing site that is set to open within the next 24 hours.
The Goulburn Valley Health hotline can be contacted on 1800 313 070 between 8am and 8pm.
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Melissa Cunningham is The Age's health reporter.
Benjamin is The Age's regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.