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HomeIssue 23COVID: Time Gunner got a handle on it

COVID: Time Gunner got a handle on it

By ERWIN CHLANDA

Questions keep piling up about the government’s handling of COVID in Alice Springs.

As “quarantine hotels” are turning out to be the problem rather than the solution, how come NT Health is continuing to use the Mercure Hotel – at a mind numbing cost to the taxpayer?

With Howard Springs touted as the quarantine gold standard, why aren’t we using very similar set-ups right here in town – free-standing cabins with all-round ventilation?

Why were the owners of these facilities, in a fickle tourist season, not invited to quote for the services?

What has happened with the Ross Facility, which was also planned as a cabin-style set-up?

And how come of the 35-odd passengers on Flight QF790 from Sydney on Monday last week, only 14 were detained at the airport and transferred to compulsory quarantine?

All passengers had shared the same air in the Sydney departure lounge, as they embarked via an enclosed gangway, sat in the same aircraft cabin for some three hours, taking off their masks for eating and drinking, used the same toilets.

More than half of these people were clearly released into the general Alice Springs community.

“Quarantine hotels” have become notorious for “leaking” the virus.

It’s what sent Darwin and Alice Springs into their recent lockdowns. 

This makes the Mercure – the Todd Facility – an interesting choice for a quarantine facility.

It is owned by Centrecorp which has the Central Land Council, the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and Tangentyere Council as shareholders – three groups traditionally friendly with Labor.

The hotel is getting paid $18.4m until November 30 for its quarantine services.

At present, with people coming in from the Sydney and Melbourne hotspots, the facility may well be busy, but the Alice Springs News understands that it is frequently empty or occupied by people numbering just in the teens.

The NT Government boasts about its Howard Springs quarantine facility as “gold standard”.

At its cost, so should be the Mercure: At – say – $150 a day the $18.4m would provide 122,666 room nights, or 17,523 room weeks or 337 room years.

For $18.4m its 139 rooms could be filled for two and a half years continuously at 100% occupancy – a landlord’s dream.

What gives Howard Springs its eminent suitability is not the case at the Mercure.

Entry to rooms in its two-story western wing, for example, is from an enclosed corridor – a fault in other quarantine hotels – although doors at either end are kept open.

The News asked COVID Media and NT Health on April 26 with updates on May 5: Please advise whether all corridors are open to the fresh air? If not, how many rooms or areas are served by enclosed corridors?

The answer was evasive: “There is a significant proportion of rooms that have direct access to outdoor areas, including balconies and courtyards.” (Our italics.)

This is an astonishing answer given that it took just one man travelling from a quarantine hotel in Queensland to the Granites goldmine north-west of Alice Springs to trigger the most serious COVID event in the town since the pandemic started, including a lockdown.

We asked: In terms of safety, in what way (if any) is the Alice Mercure different to the Australian quarantine hotels in which infections have occurred?

NT Health provided the following responses:–

“The Todd Facility is not a high-rise structure like many of the quarantine hotels located interstate and as a result there is greater exposure to outdoor areas.”

This statement is not explained. What difference does it make if an enclosed corridor is on the second or the 19th floor?

Alice Springs News senior writer Kieran Finnane is becoming familiar with the Todd Facility, or at least its western wing (Rivergum Court): She is one of the 14 QF790 passengers in quarantine there.

This is Ms Finnane’s observation of the layout of the western wing: “The door at the end of the corridor to the left of my room is usually closed.

“The ground level entrance to the stairwell opposite my room (arrow) is always open.

“The door at the end of the corridor to the right of my room, leading onto the open-air walkway between two wings, is always open.

“I figure that there is airflow between the ground level door opening onto the stairwell and that door onto the walkway,” says Ms Finnane.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that airflow would depend on the conditions outside: The more breeze, the more airflow. No breeze, little airflow.

And with the Covid-19 viruses, all it takes is one single droplet, hanging in the air.

And yet Alice Springs has Howard Springs style facilities: Free-standing and self contained cabins.

There are 45 of them in the MacDonnell Range Caravan Park – well in excess of the typical demand.

And there are 25 of them in the Wintersun Caravan Park.

Neither was approached to provide the service.

Just down the road from the MacDonnell Range Caravan Park is CAAAPU, the government funded Central Australian Aboriginal Alcohol Programs Unit.

In its back yard the government was building a quarantine facility, the Ross Facility, which sources claimed would be for Aboriginal people and free of charge, quite the opposite to the $2500 which people consigned to the Mercure are being charged.

Families Minister Dale Wakefield, who lost her seat in the last NT election, performed a virtuosic twisting and turning when asked about that facility by the Alice Springs News a year ago.

It now seems the Ross Facility has gone.

When we checked last week it appeared not much had happened behind this tall fence on the Ross Highway. With the sign gone, no doubt so has the public money sunk into this, while businesses, capable of performing the same function, are struggling.

7 COMMENTS

  1. The difference between the second and nineteenth floor is that COVID-19 clearly suffers from vertigo.
    Similarly it never used to travel through ventilation systems, as different to legionnaires disease which is well know for its transmission through ventilation systems.
    So the virus has mutated well.
    On a less cynical note, it is astounding that only 14 persons out of 35 went to the facility!
    The horrible question is, if someone contracts the virus whilst in the facility, who will be accountable?
    I am still trying to work out why people don’t have to wear the N95 Masks! Apparently there is a shortage so the virus will cut us some slack and slow its spread.
    With regard to the accomodation fees, as taxpayers we are paying for the facility and the travellers are also paying.
    I’m guessing most of them are are taxpayers too, so doesn’t that mean they are paying twice?
    Good luck with obtaining sensible answers and commitment from the government Erwin.

  2. The best design for a facility is one where the doors of each room face outward.
    There is no balcony for them to go out on.
    All floors and cornices are air tight.
    Filtering systems are purpose designed, not for small rooms.
    Onboarding should be done behind air tight shields possibly with rubber gloves through.
    The bus drivers should be behind purpose built air tight perspex.
    No-one else should get on the bus.

  3. Bloody disgrace.
    We have the most vulnerable population with the highest Aboriginal proportion of our population.
    Delta is three times more infections than the original strain of Covid19.
    Even when vaccinated you can still catch it and infect others, but much less likely to become seriously ill or die.
    Gunner will have blood on his hands if Delta gets out of control here.
    It’s coming, ready or not.
    As for Congress profiting via their stake in Centrecorp from hopelessly inadequate quarantine facilities: They are funded as the primary health organisation for the Aboriginal population.
    Where is their duty of care?
    This is worse than the time they ran a grog outlet.
    Shame on them.

  4. Erwin, your comments are not going unnoticed for example you raise the matter of 35 odd passengers coming in on a Sydney flight and only 14 being quarantined.
    This is concerning if those 21 extra passengers on that flight are in our community. This is the first time I have been made aware of this.
    Has this information been released elsewhere to those of us who live, work, shop and socialise in Alice Springs?
    This is alarming if not crazy and do we know if those 21 passengers are or have been tracked since arriving?

  5. Of course they all breathed it in on the plane. It’s walking around town. Testing is not compulsory so people don’t do it. Best to restart that Ross Facility.

  6. I believe the NT Government needs to re-visit there COVID entry requirements and exemptions.
    The Chief Medical Officer is out of touch and date with the remoteness and how COVID is being handled in other states.
    I appreciate the NT has vulnerable people, but so does every capital city in Australia they have more vulnerable people than the NT and they don’t send people into facilities if they have traces or have been in a hotspot area.
    Before leaving to Melbourne, I applied for a exemption to self isolate at home. My request was not dealt within the 48 hours as stipulated on the website.
    After several phone calls and no return phone calls, I received my letter of denial on Wednesday when I was in Melbourne.
    The reason given to me by phone was because I am getting on a plane, and Greater Melbourne has been declared a hotspot.
    This is my experience on the ground in Melbourne:
    1. When I landed at Melbourne airport I was not greeted by anyone. I walked straight off the plane outside into my niece’s car.
    2. Because I was having several procedures and entering a hospital facility I was required to be tested for COVID. I attended Richmond Hospital had my test and tested negative.
    3. Monday I attended the hospital and had my procedure.
    4. Tuesday I attended the hospital for my procedure, returned back home.
    I never used public transport, I travelled only for my appointments and home.
    People are being denied the right to self isolate at home because NT Government are saying all of Melbourne is a hotspot.
    I say this is because of the following: When you are in Melbourne Altona is not a hotspot, Richmond hospital is not a hotspot. Cases were found at MCG. Altona is 50kms away from MCG. And if I was contact traced at the MCG then I would be required to self isolate at home. They do not send you to a facility.
    The CLP and Independents should start doing their job as the Opposition and ask these questions instead of fluffing about doing community fund raising. Let’s get answers to the following questions:
    1. If our population is so vulnerable, why at the Alice Springs Hospital are visitors allowed? In Melbourne NO VISITORS are allowed, only people who are there for medical appointments are allowed entry.
    2. Why are people being forced into Todd facility.
    3. When is the Chief Medical Officer going to recognise some people from Alice Springs need to go interstate for medical reasons? We are not privileged with the best medical equipment, nor do we have the luxury of a private hospital.
    What I do know is:
    1. NT Government likes to use our private health funds supposedly to purchase medical equipment.
    2. The Commonwealth Government gave NTG a considerable amount of money to operate these facilities. The NT is not interested in people’s circumstances nor the fact that people from Alice Springs travel interstate for medical treatment and follow-up on medical appointments etc. Whether its Melbourne or Adelaide take your pick.
    As my doctor in Melbourne said, there is no reason why I couldn’t self-isolate in my own home in Alice Springs as I have been vaccinated.
    Forcing people into isolation at their own cost is not appropriate, given we are paying for our own medical treatment and travel. Not being disrespectful to the Alice Springs Hospital, they do a wonderful job, however let’s face it, they just don’t have the equipment, continuity of care nor the expertise in some areas.
    In conclusion to all of this, what is the incentive to have your COVID vaccination if the NT are going to make you going into a facility every time you go somewhere?
    I am self employed and I perhaps I should send my bill to the NT for loss of my income while I await for this to end.

  7. Alice Springs quarantine a stone’s throw away from the town centre. A big Delta cough on a windy day blowing towards town. Scary.

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