‘Killed my trust’: Nebuliser patient at centre of Holiday Inn cluster calls for probe

A returned traveller blamed for spreading coronavirus through the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel by using a nebuliser is pushing for an independent review into his case as he does not trust the state government to investigate itself.

The returned traveller, who has chronic asthma, previously told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald he was twice given permission by Victorian health authorities to use the medical device, which turns liquid medications into a fine mist that can be inhaled, while in quarantine.

Victoria’s latest outbreak is centred on the Holiday Inn at Melbourne Airport.Credit:Penny Stephens

This is despite nebulisers being banned for use in most Victorian hospitals, except in specially designed negative pressure rooms, after it was suspected to have fuelled serious outbreaks in Melbourne hospitals during the state’s second wave of coronavirus infections.

“I don’t trust the state level of government anymore, they’ve really killed my trust in this system,” the father of- one, who asked for his name not to be published to protect his family’s identity, said.

“I was getting misinformation left, right and centre ever since we arrived at the first hotel.”

The 38-year-old, who has been discharged from hospital and is now back with his family in hotel quarantine, revealed on Wednesday morning he had contacted the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care and requested an independent review.

He said his request for an independent investigation was in response to a state government audit of the Holiday Inn, which found there was no record of him declaring the device.

The man said he was never asked for his account of events prior to the audit being conducted and says he was told on Tuesday, after being contacted by the Health Department, that there were three different files for his case.

“I was extremely disappointed that they hadn’t written down my version of things before they did the initial audit because when you have a problem, generally, the first thing you do is actually gather all the information,” he said.

“You contact all the people involved and you try and work out what went wrong. I was a key person in this, but they never called me to ask what happened. They don’t seem to have properly documented my case.”

The man said he had also contacted the office of federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, who has been critical of the Victorian government’s handling of his case, and on Tuesday called for an independent investigation into the matter.

Emma Cassar, the head of Victoria’s hotel quarantine program, announced on Tuesday an incident review led by the state’s health department and Safer Care Victoria was being undertaken into how the returned traveller was able to use a nebuliser in his hotel room and whether any staff were at fault.

Findings of the earlier audit of the incident led Ms Cassar to “categorically say” there was no record of the medical device ever being declared by the returned traveller at the Holiday Inn hotel at Melbourne Airport.

When asked by a reporter on Tuesday if she had spoken to the returned traveller, Ms Cassar said she had spoken to the man directly and apologised “for his treatment”.

Quarantine Victoria Commissioner Emma CassarCredit: Luis Ascui

The returned traveller said he had spoken at length to Ms Cassar about his version of events.

“She took down a really detailed account of what has actually occurred when we checked in and the process that happened from then on,” he said.

“I spent a good hour-and-a-half on the phone to her.”

The Victorian man also said that when he declared the medical device shortly after arriving at the Holiday Inn on January 23, staff offered to source more Ventolin nebules, the medication administered by the machine.

The Holiday Inn cluster, which has so far infected 19 people, triggered a five-day lockdown across Victoria aimed at preventing the highly infectious British variant of the coronavirus spreading further throughout the community.

Among those infected in the outbreak was the man’s partner and his three-month-old daughter.

It is suspected the use of the nebuliser caused fine aerosolised particles carrying coronavirus to be suspended in the air and spread throughout the hotel.

The returned traveller, who has been deemed patient zero in the Holiday Inn cluster by public health officials, said he was unsure when he had become infected with the virus.

He tested negative to the virus before boarding a flight from Europe at the end of January, and returned a negative test again on the third day of his quarantine in Melbourne.

He suspects he may have been exposed to the virus at an airport on the way home, or perhaps on the bus from Melbourne Airport to the Holiday Inn, where he says he and his family were unable to socially distance from other returned travellers on the 500-metre trip.

“It is the million dollar question,” he said. “I have even wondered if we got infected in the hotel somehow.”

The man had not tested positive to coronavirus when he used the medical device, but he had respiratory symptoms, including breathlessness.

He said he first began to show signs of respiratory illness an hour after arriving at the Holiday Inn and blamed a faulty evaporative airconditioning system that continually fluctuated in temperature for aggravating his asthma.

On the sixth day of his quarantine he spoke to a doctor about getting another test as his symptoms were worsening, but was told it would not be necessary as he had been tested three days earlier so it was unlikely to be coronavirus.

Victorian Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said public officials still suspect the use of the nebuliser helped seed the Holiday Inn cluster, but conceded it was difficult to determine with absolute certainty how the outbreak unfolded.

Epidemiological links strongly pointed to those who were on that floor of the quarantine hotel being infected when the nebuliser was in use on day five and six of the man’s quarantine.

“That’s the linkage and that’s why it supports that theory as opposed to other days when it wasn’t in use,” said Professor Sutton.

“These things in the world of epidemiology always remain working hypotheses. It’s not to say that coronavirus is not incredibly contagious under normal circumstances. There is no denialism about airborne transmission from my point of view. I know that nebulisers can increase that risk. ”

In the wake of the outbreak, all returned travellers will have their bags thoroughly searched upon arrival in Melbourne.

Since the case emerged, authorities say they have introduced clear signage at Melbourne Airport and employed nurse spotters working with Australian Border Force to identify any aerosol-generating devices with incoming travellers.

“They need to fix the processes so people can return safely to Australia,” the returned traveller said.

“I know what it’s like being stuck overseas and it’s a horrible feeling. We need to we need to be able to get people back safely.”

The state government and Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care have both been contacted for comment.

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