25 Mar 2021

MIQ hotel complications a 'betrayal of trust' - returnee

From Checkpoint, 5:10 pm on 25 March 2021

A returnee at the Grand Mercure Auckland managed isolation facility, where officials believe there may have been transmission of Covid-19, says tougher rules are needed.

She was among a group bussed to an exercise area with the returnee who returned a positive result while out walking, but then went back on the same bus. 

Health officials are scrambling to contact 250 returnees who've left the hotel after genome sequencing showed a link between two returnees who were staying in separate rooms on different floors and arrived on separate flights, two days apart.

Both have the UK strain of the virus. 

One of those cases is a person who tested positive on day 12 while out walking and was taken back in the same bus as other returnees. The person was also on another exercise bus two days earlier.

It has meant that 23 other returnees have had their isolation stays extended by up to 14 extra days, and returnees who have left the hotel since 10 March are now being ordered to stay home and immediately get a Covid-19 test.

Among the returnees who now have to stay longer is a doctor who is deeply concerned about what she sees as sloppy, potentially dangerous protocols in managed isolation.

"It's disappointing, it's a betrayal of trust, and every New Zealander should feel very unhappy about that.

"I thought the risk was stratified - that we would be walked with people within our zone, our bubble."

After the walk, she noticed everyone was seated in a different spot than where they had been when they first used the bus to go out.

"We were all mixed and hence, we all became close contacts.

"They did have a row between each guest, but they did not have a checkable pattern - which I understand from Public Health is what should have been happening - which means we weren't two metres [away from each other], we were more like 1.2m, 1.3m away from the next person.

"But also the fact that we weren't in the same seating pattern there and back ... has meant that we all have to be classified as close contacts, because they cannot rule out who was not a close contact.

"When we arrived, as we got off the bus, there was a number of people waiting for the bus and they immediately corralled the workers who had taken us to the site and pulled them over to one side."

She said she immediately felt nervous after getting to her room about possibly being exposed. Then she was notified about what had happened and told she would be staying for at least another five days.

"[It] felt quite awful because it was obvious they had the result and not decided to reduce the risk by taking the poor person away and bringing us back separately in a clean bus, so they could halve our exposure. They had that time to actually make a decision about what they were going to do with us and that is very disappointing because they could've mitigated the risk.

"It's a complete betrayal of trust, not just to the people who were on that bus, but also to every New Zealander. We trust that our border will keep the virus out of our country, we have an elimination strategy and we trust that their procedures are good enough to prevent that, and it does not feel like that is happening."

Subsequently, she was told she would be staying at the hotel for an extra 14 days.

She said Public Health told her they were "unhappy" and "disappointed" with the inconsistent seating plan and that the appropriate distancing was not maintained on the bus.

"The doctor that spoke to me said that it was the most serious one that she had dealt with in the whole of this time and she was very disappointed, and she was very apologetic that it had happened to me, and I'm sure she said that to every single person she talked to.

"The people who are working here are amazing, but the system is letting us down and things need to change immediately. They cannot use those buses to take people out to the site, it's too dangerous.

"They need to make sure that they keep different risk profile people separated and that is not happening."

She was also disappointed to learn about the possibility of transmission within the facility through news media.

"To learn it's the UK variant and not to be told that by the authorities is disappointing, it just feels like you're not being treated with respect, it is terrifying that it is the most transmissible variant. It does not surprise me that it has been transmitted, it's one of the more tricky variants.

She said she had seen some people at the hotel who would lower their masks to talk on the phone while on the bus.

She has now written to the Director-General of Health about her concerns and suggested that those returnees having to isolate further should be offered the vaccine as an olive branch.

She said there was some evidence to suggest vaccination may help to improve immune response in early stages of being infected before the virus takes hold, although she acknowledged the evidence was not strong yet.

She said it was warranted to offer these returnees the vaccine, especially considering the government had already put out a vaccine exceptions plan.

"At the moment, we feel disregarded and unprotected.

"Anything that is offered as hope helps to reduce your cortisol response, and when your cortisol response is reduced by that empathy and by that giving of hope, your immune response improves."

"I don't have any problem with any people working in the system, but the system has failed us, and the ministry can actually do things to start rebuilding our confidence and our trust."

She said had not heard back from the director-general yet.

The Ministry of Health declined to speak to Checkpoint to address some of the concerns raised.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – which is responsible for managed isolation and quarantine facilities – also did not respond to Checkpoint’s request. 

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins was also unavailable to appear on the programme, but told RNZ he was taking the possibility of transmission within the Grand Mercure very seriously.

Hipkins said they were working hard to ascertain exactly what had happened between the cases, and said there was no chance of community transmission at the moment.

"The one thing we're doing just to be absolutely certain of that is going back and testing people who have left the Grand Mercure facility during the time period that these two cases were there and that's just a very precautionary measure - it just means that if for any reason they have been incubating the virus, we'll pick that up."

He said there was relatively low risk given what they understood about the cases' movements, but they were acting out of an abundance of caution.

"It's five or six days since the last possible exposure event, so providing their [the returnees’] tests come back negative, we should be feeling reasonably confident at that point."