Mystery of Ward 5D: ‘Large number’ of staff affected
Emergency meetings were under way at the Princess Alexandra Hospital last night after a "large number" of staff who entered the infectious disease Ward 5D last week were ordered into quarantine for 14 days, even if they had no contact with patients.
Ward 5D is at the centre of two separate COVID-19 virus clusters this month involving a junior doctor and two nurses, triggering contamination concerns.
The ward has been closed for thorough cleaning.
An email obtained by The Courier-Mail last night said: "Following executive meetings today with Public Health we have just been instructed that staff who entered ward 5D between 2000 Tuesday 23rd March and 1200 Friday 26th March will be required to quarantine for a period of 14 days from the time they were in ward 5D.
"This will include a large number of staff and it is regardless of whether there was patient contact or not.
"We understand that this may cause distress to many members of staff but we are required to strictly enforce this directive.
"We are very aware of the effects this will have on units and emergency meetings are being held this evening/tomorrow to address these issues."
The quarantine order follows the PA Hospital's latest cluster growing to 11 people, including two nurses.
Experts have speculated surface contamination, viral particles lingering in the air or even "silent transmission" involving an undiagnosed work colleague as possibly being responsible for spreading the virus inside Ward 5D.
The Queensland Nurses and Midwives' Union has also called for better fit testing of high filtration N95 masks used by staff working with COVID-19 patients and for sufficient numbers of smaller masks to be made available for women.
Ward 5D was closed after a second nurse who worked there tested positive to the virus, the third female health worker at the Princess Alexandra Hospital to be diagnosed with COVID-19 in less than three weeks.
The first outbreak involving a PA Hospital junior doctor, who assessed a COVID-19 positive patient stands at eight cases, including a Stafford landscaper and his brother. How the infection spread from the doctor to the brothers also remains a mystery.
Genomic sequencing has established the two hospital clusters are not linked although both involve the highly infectious UK variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
More than 1000 people have been placed in quarantine as a result of the two clusters.
Contact tracers are still trying to piece together how the two nurses contracted the virus from a patient who had recently travelled to Queensland from India.
Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said the infected patient was brought into Ward 5D at 8.30pm on March 23, 90 minutes before the first nurse to test positive started her shift.
That nurse infected her sister and seven people who attended a hens' party at Byron Bay, including a male stripper. They are being treated at hospitals in Bundaberg, Toowoomba, the Gold Coast and Brisbane.
Dr Young said investigations had established the nurse had no direct contact with the COVID-positive patient during her shift.
"There is most likely some environmental contamination or some aerosolisation of the virus when the person was admitted," she said.
Investigations are also under way into how the second nurse, and subsequently her housemate, became infected with the same COVID-19 variant as the infected traveller.
Infectious disease physician Paul Griffin said the role of tiny floating viral particles as a cause for SARS-CoV-2 infection remained controversial.
He speculated that another possibility was that an intermediary, "a direct link" to both infected nurses - a colleague or visitor - may have caught the virus from the patient and passed it on without knowing they were infectious.
"Obviously, testing and all of those things will help sort that out," Prof Griffin said.
In the 24 hours to yesterday morning, Queensland recorded 33,408 tests for SARS-CoV-2, the highest number in a single day during the pandemic.
"I think we can say it's certainly good news in terms of testing numbers and the test results," Prof Griffin said.
"But it's far too early to ease up any of the efforts so far."
Despite ongoing probes into how the two clusters occurred, Prof Griffin said it was possible a cause may never be found.
"I think there's a distinct possibility that we'll never fully understand every link in the chain," he said.
QNMU secretary Beth Mohle called on Queensland Health to ensure health workers were fit tested for N95 masks.
"For us to have comfort that our members are safe, there needs to be both COVID-19 vaccination and appropriately fitted personal protective equipment," Ms Mohle said.
"We want assurances that there's sufficient quantities of small size N95 masks available because the vast majority of health workers are women and it's more likely they'll have small size faces."
The second nurse in the latest PA Hospital cluster was vaccinated against COVID-19 on March 19 but Dr Young said she had not yet developed full immunity before becoming infected.
Originally published as Mystery of Ward 5D: 'Large number' of staff affected