High-rise not told of COVID cases

By David Schout

Central city owners’ corporations (OCs) are on high alert after news that managers at one of Melbourne’s largest high-rise apartment buildings were not informed by health authorities that residents had tested positive to COVID-19.

After two residents tested positive at Southbank’s 72-floor Prima Tower, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) did not inform building management, according to the tower’s OCs managers Melcorp Strata. 

It is believed that privacy is at the heart of the issue, with the department only passing on details about individual cases when they deem there is wider public health concerns.

Melcorp Strata general manager Donna Rowe confirmed with CBD News that a Prima Tower resident had tested positive last month, something they discovered independently of health authorities.

Soon after, the partner of the positive case was also found to have contracted COVID-19.

The building’s biosecurity and outbreak control plan was enacted once the OC became aware of the case, which included the immediate sanitisation of all relevant areas and the tracing of fob activity.

Residents on the respective floor were advised of the case and the OC committee decided, by majority decision, to inform all other high-rise owners and residents of the positive case, withholding both the floor and apartment number.

The department then advised that all casual contacts had been traced and contacted.

In response, the DHHS told CBD News that “public exposure sites” were contacted in the instance of a positive case.

But all non-essential public areas in residential accommodation are currently ordered closed under stage 4 health directions, including playgrounds, gyms, pools and barbecues. 

Department guidelines for multi-dwelling properties states it “may” contact building managers of COVID-19 cases in their buildings, but only when “more information is required to assess risk, or that additional public health actions are required”.

A spokesperson did not say what circumstances would trigger this.

“Building managers of residential multi-dwelling developments are provided support to develop plans to help stop the spread of coronavirus, including developing an environmental cleaning schedule to ensure routine cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces and essential communal areas,” the spokesperson said. 

OC chair at Docklands’ Watergate Apartments Barbara Francis, who recently took part in a briefing session with the DHHS, said she would want to know if a resident tested positive in her building.

“We believe it should be mandatory. The building should be notified of the case in their building so they can manage it properly. Only people that absolutely need to know should know,” she said. 

“We don’t approve of divulging any information that jeopardises privacy but there needs to be a few measures put in place to make sure that there’s no chance of any spread of the virus to the rest of the building.”

Ms Francis said it was also about managing the spread of unhelpful information. 

“I always think you should let people know as much as they can know, rather than them getting wind of it and rumours start to spread. That is worse.”

But Dr Stan Capp, the president of CBD residents group EastEnders, backed the health authority’s discretion.

“I think it’s a matter for the DHHS to advise as they see fit,” Dr Capp said.

“If nothing changes (by informing all residents) then what’s the point? What we don’t want to do is get into the environment where people are named and shamed because they have the virus. And that sort of is inherent in wanting to know all the details. I’m not of that mind - I would favour the retention of strict privacy and respect the rights of individuals to deal with it as we would expect people to deal with it in every environment, whether they’re in apartment towers or they live in a house in the suburbs. The same rules prevail.”

Dr Capp acknowledged, however, that this system relied on COVID-positive residents abiding by the rules. 

“One relies upon the infected person doing the right thing. Even if you tell them that a person in the tower has got it, you still don’t know whether the infected person will do the right thing … I would err on retaining the good faith of individuals to respect what they need to do. We have to respect their privacy, too.”

At the time of publshing the City of Melbourne local government area had recorded a total of 854 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 119 active cases, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). 

On August 24, Victoria recorded a total of 116 new active cases - the lowest daily total since July 5.

Premier Daniel Andrews announced on the same day that his government would seek to change laws so that Victoria’s state of emergency could be extended by a further 12 months. 

Under the state’s Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, a state of emergency, which must be declared in four-week blocks, can only be extended for a consecutive period of six months. 

The state of emergency allows the Chief Health Officer to be able to make legally enforcable directions to protect public health, and Mr Andrews said it was clear it needed to be extended beyond the current period due to end on September 13 •

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