Tower, school linked in ‘mega-cluster’

There is an “epidemiological link” between coronavirus cases found in two of Victoria’s greatest COVID-19 clusters – at an inner city housing tower and Al-Taqwa College in the western suburb of Truganina.

The so-called “mega-cluster” has eclipsed the previous Cedar meats outbreak with 113 cases now recorded. The Australian reported that 58 of the Al Taqwa cases are students, 21 are staff and 14 are contacts with a further 20 under investigation.

On Thursday, chief health officer Brett Sutton said he didn’t know which cluster came first.

“An epidemiological link between Al-Taqwa and the towers is just a link. It might have gone in one direction, it might have gone in the other direction. There may well be multiple importations of virus (at both sites),” he said.

No link had been established between that outbreak, and the quarantine related cases from the inner city.

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It comes as residents in eight of the nine public housing towers placed under hard lockdown in Melbourne have been able to get outside for their first breath of fresh air since Saturday.

They join millions of Victorians under a six-week lockdown with four reasons to leave home.

But those in the remaining tower at 33 Alfred St in North Melbourne, where at least 53 cases of COVID-19 had been identified by Thursday, remain under strict orders to stay inside for the next nine days.

The health department has promised “daily exercise will be scheduled and supervised” for the hundreds of tenants.

A Current Affair reporter Sam Cucchiara was live on air and standing outside the Alfred St address on Thursday night when shouting broke out from the windows above.

“There’s just a lady up here who has become quite agitated,” Cucchiara said.

“She’s saying ‘What about all of us who have tested negative? Why can’t we leave?’

“I think I heard her say her brother’s birthday is tomorrow. We can hear a few people starting to yell now. It’s sort of starting to get a little bit louder.”

Host Tracy Grimshaw replied: “They’re probably watching their televisions and they know you’re there.”

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Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services undertook a “testing blitz” of the nine addresses in Flemington and North Melbourne, with chief health officer Professor Brett Sutton announcing on Thursday “the next steps that can now be taken across both estates”.

“In just five days, 2515 residents have been tested, identifying 158 positive cases. Work is ongoing to identify all close contacts,” the department said in a statement.

“The highest number of cases have been found at 33 Alfred Street, North Melbourne, with at least 53 confirmed cases. This represents around 11 per cent of residents.

“Given such a high number of positive cases and the unknown source of much of the transmission, our health experts have advised that, just as with an aged care facility, all residents of 33 Alfred St will be classed as close contacts who must isolate for 14 days in total.

“We’ll continue to support these Victorians with food, back to school resources and any other kind of assistance they might need as they stay home and stay safe. Daily exercise will be scheduled and supervised.

“Onsite medical teams will continue to provide medical care and regular testing of these residents – ensuring we have the insight and information we need to guide future decisions.”

Premier Daniel Andrews said the 14-day isolation period for those at the Alfred St tower, including the five days that have passed since Saturday, would continue to be enforced by police.

“That is an abundance-of-caution approach that not only protects the welfare and the wellbeing, the health, of all of those residents, but also protects public health as well,” he said.

Police Minister Lisa Neville said it would be a “really tough” for the next nine days but the message from health authorities was “very clear”.

“We can’t allow people to be moving across floors or in lifts because it is such a high-risk environment in that particular tower,” she said.

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There were no cases diagnosed in residents at 9 Pampas St and 159 Melrose St, meaning tenants at those addresses moved to stage three stay at home restrictions from Thursday.

“Towers at 12 Sutton St, 76 Canning St, 12 Holland Ct, 120 Racecourse Rd, 126 Racecourse Rd and 130 Racecourse Rd will reopen from 11:59pm tonight (Thursday) – ensuring that when these residents leave their home for one of the four reasons, they can do so safely,” the DHHS said.

The health department said any positive cases and their close contacts who live in these buildings will be supported by a “dedicated and integrated management response team”.

“That includes encouraging positive cases and close contacts to take up alternative accommodation offsite for the period of their isolation,” it said.

“For those who choose not to relocate, each resident will have their own single point of contact with daily check-ins and food, medical care and mental health support services all provided.

“This includes having a dedicated team of community leaders and community nurses who’ll be on hand to provide care door-to-door.”

Communal laundries will close and external laundry services will be provided to all residents due to the “continued risk these towers represent”.

Every floor will be deep cleaned daily and “high touchpoints” in building lifts and stairwells will be cleaned at least five times a day.

Authorities will be checking that those who tested positive or who have been considered a close contact of a confirmed case remain at home as the hard lockdown eases to stage three.

“Everyone who has tested positive to coronavirus (COVID-19) must isolate after being notified of the diagnosis,” the health department states.

“If the person is not at the place where they will isolate, the person must immediately travel to there and begin isolation, without making any stops.”

There were 165 new COVID-19 cases announced in Victoria on Thursday with 932 active cases across the state. Forty people are in hospital including nine patients in intensive care.

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