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What’s behind the lights?

High-rise not told of COVID cases

09 Sep 2020

High-rise not told of COVID cases Image

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 OC 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 or when close contacts needed to be followed up.

Melcorp Strata general manager Donna Rowe confirmed with Southbank 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 and the OC committee then decided, by majority decision, to inform all other high-rise owners and residents of the positive case, withholding both the floor and apartment number.

Not all building managers, however, have been kept in the dark when a positive case has occurred.

One building manager at a Docklands apartment tower, who wished to remain anonymous, confirmed he was informed by the DHHS when one of his residents tested positive.

He said that after being told of the positive case, he was able to closely monitor areas outside the relevant apartment and order his cleaners to be extra vigilant with certain touch points.

And while he acknowledged it was a “complicated” issue, he said management needed to know.

“Where the DHHS is concerned, if they know of a case they need to inform management of the person or apartment. It’s pretty important,” he said.

When asked why some were informed of a positive case and others weren’t, a DHHS spokesperson said they were only contacting building managers under two circumstances.

“In high rises, the department may contact management if there are concerns about possible public exposure or close contacts need to be followed up,” the spokesperson said.

“People are considered close contacts when they have had face-to-face contact with a confirmed case for 15 minutes or more or have spent more than over two hours in the same enclosed space.”

Head of lobby group We Live Here Barbara Francis, who recently took part in a briefing session with the DHHS, said she while she understood the privacy issues at hand, she too 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.”

As of September 7, the DHHS suburb-by-suburb data revealed that Southbank has had 66 confirmed positive cases throughout the course of COVID-19.

Pleasingly, none of those cases were listed as “active” •

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