COVID-19 in WA: City avoids fourth lockdown of the year after ‘weak positive’
A FIFO worker has returned a “very, very weak” positive COVID-19 test, sparking fears he was “probably or possibly” infectious on a Pilbara mine site and then in the city, including during long drinking sessions at three popular Perth pubs.
Speaking from Diggers and Dealers in Kalgoorlie, Fortescue Metals Group chief executive Elizabeth Gaines said she would not hesitate to shut down the Cloudbreak iron ore mine at the centre of the scare at the first sign of evidence the virus had spread.
“I’ve been saying this all along, we have to be prepared for this ... you can’t become complacent,” Ms Gaines said, adding it was too early to say how many workers had potentially been exposed but that contact tracing was already under way and expected to be completed on Thursday.
The FMG boss said the company was also awaiting approval for rapid antigen testing for FIFO workers at Perth Airport as an added security measure.
Premier Mark McGowan revealed the positive diagnosis on Wednesday afternoon but resisted plunging the city into its fourth lockdown for the year because of the “unusual” circumstances surrounding the case.
The infected maintenance contractor, a Greenwood resident in his 30s, was at Perth Airport to fly out to Cloudbreak for a week on the morning of July 20 — at the same time as another man who three days earlier had been denied entry into WA after arriving from Queensland.
The Queensland traveller had returned from the Philippines and completed two weeks of hotel quarantine in the Sunshine State, testing negative three times before being released and boarding a flight to Perth on July 17.
He was denied entry into WA and spent two days isolating in a Perth hotel before being placed on a return flight to Brisbane on July 20.
He subsequently tested positive to COVID-19 on July 26 — which prompted WA Health to last week list Perth Airport Terminal 3 and 4 as a potential exposure site.
Authorities believe the West Australian likely picked up the virus from the Queensland man.
He spent a week at Cloudbreak, returning to Perth on July 27 and then visiting three pubs for multiple hours over four days: Fremantle’s Old Faithful Bar and BBQ (July 28), the Indian Ocean Hotel in Scarborough (July 29) and the Subiaco Hotel (July 31).
He also visited the Greenwood Village Shopping Centre — including Coles, Bakers Delight and Lewis Meats, MRKT SPACE in Fremantle, Southbank Central (main floor entrance/foyer as well as the upper level) and PathWest waiting room at Fremantle Hospital.
Visitors to any of those locations at the same time as the FIFO worker — as well as anyone at Cloudbreak between July 20 and 27 — must be tested immediately and quarantine until they return a negative result.
Both the Subiaco Hotel and Old Faithful Bar and BBQ yesterday shut their doors as a precautionary measure.
The man has not displayed any symptoms and only returned the positive swab this week as part of FMG’s routine testing program for FIFO workers. He then subsequently tested negative and is currently in isolation awaiting the results of another swab.
Further complicating the case is the fact the man previously contracted and recovered from COVID-19 in March of last year — making him perhaps the unluckiest tradie in Australia but also raising the prospect the weak positive was the result of “shedding” of the virus.
“The suspicion is that he may well have been positive at some point in the community,” Mr McGowan said.
“The best explanation we have for his weak positive test result is he probably acquired it from the man in the airport through some sort of casual contact.
“We think he was positive over the course of the last 16 days. At what point in time he was positive, we’re not sure.
“And there’s also a strong prospect he wasn’t actually infectious because he was COVID positive early last year. Apparently ... you can actually have had COVID and then if you get it again, you are not actually infectious. So that’s a strong possibility and I certainly hope that’s the case.”
The FIFO worker’s girlfriend has already tested negative, as has one of three workmates classified as close contacts, with the other two results pending overnight.
Encouragingly, the Queenslander believed to have seeded the infection had the Alpha strain of the virus rather than the much faster spreading Delta variant.
Health Minister Roger Cook said the weakness of the West Australian’s test result meant genomic sequencing of the case was “unlikely” to be possible.
Mr Cook said there was “no reason to believe that this will lead to a lockdown” but that the new infection remained a cause for concern and that anyone who visited one of the exposure sites at the same time as the FIFO worker should immediately get tested and quarantine until they return a negative result.
In a statement, FMG said the man had been asymptomatic while on site.
“The health and safety of our team members remains our highest priority and we are working closely with the Department of Health to assist with contact tracing,” the statement said.
“If you were at site during Tuesday, 20 July - Tuesday, 27 July, the Department of Health have advised you should get a COVID-19 test and isolate awaiting your negative result.
“Please monitor your symptoms as a matter of urgency.
“If you start developing any of the following symptoms including fever, cough, tiredness, headache or slight runny nose, please telephone the site medic or your GP immediately and inform them that you are a contact of a confirmed case of a COVID-19 case and follow their medical advice including isolating in your room.”
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