Australia states investigate COVID-19 spread in quarantine hotels

FILE PHOTO: A worker disposes of waste outside a quarantine hotel where returning travelers are kept in isolation for a period to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, August 21, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Two Australian states urged staff and guests in COVID-19 quarantine hotels to get tested immediately and fully self-isolate, launching investigations into three suspected cases of travellers contracting the virus from other residents.

Australia closed its borders to non-citizens and permanent residents more than a year ago to contain the pandemic, and travellers arriving from overseas are required to undergo a two-week hotel quarantine at their own expense.

New South Wales (NSW) and Western Australia state officials said genetic sequencing found links to the same sequence of virus in infected guests resident in Sydney and Perth hotels during routine tests. At this stage the cases, on either side of the country, are not believed to be connected.

"We don't have a definitive conclusion around the way the transmission occurred at this point in time," NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant told reporters on Thursday.

A guest staying in a quarantine hotel in Sydney, Australia's most populous city and NSW's state capital, tested positive for the virus with the same genetic sequence as infected people staying in a nearby room.

Authorities fear guests who tested negative at the end of their NSW hotel quarantine and were allowed to leave could have already been exposed to the virus, raising the risk of it spreading in the community.

"Because of the implications if that transmission event occurred in the hotel, the question is could other people have been exposed?," Chant said. Several hotel quarantine guests have already travelled to other states and territories, Chant said.

NSW authorities on Sunday said they would investigate how a family of three quarantined in a different Sydney hotel returned positive tests with the same virus sequence as a non-related family of four quarantined in the same building.

Meanwhile Western Australia state late on Wednesday said two sets of guests staying in a Perth hotel in opposite rooms were detected with the same sequence of virus, despite arriving from different countries at different times.

While Australia has fared much better than many other developed countries during the pandemic, with just over 29,500 cases and 910 deaths, the hotel quarantine cases come as its vaccination rollout programme has hit major roadblocks.

Australia's national cabinet will meet later on Thursday and is expected to urgently include people above 50 years in its immunisation drive to ramp up its vaccine rollout.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

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