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COVID-19 inquiry outlines DHHS delays in abattoir contact tracing

Terry Sim, February 10, 2021

A REPORT into the Victorian Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the significant delays in its contact tracing response to an outbreak at Melbourne meat processor Cedar Meats last year.

In April and May 2020, the Cedar Meats processing facility at Brooklyn was the site of an outbreak of COVID-19 which eventually grew to 111 cases.

The Public Accounts and Estimates Committee report tabled last week found the Department of Health and Human Services did not request information that would allow comprehensive contact tracing of all Cedar Meats staff and visitors to the Brooklyn facility until 11:53pm on 7 May 2020 — 13 days after the first case was identified.

This contradicted evidence from the then Minister for Health, Jenny Mikakos on 12 May 2020 when she advised the committee the information that would allow comprehensive contact tracing of all staff and visitors to the Cedar Meats facility was not provided to DHHS until 4 May 2020. Based on Ms Mikakos’ evidence, the committee then found that DHHS did not have access to data on the total number of individuals that may have been exposed to COVID-19 at the Cedar Meats facility until nine days after the first case had been identified on 24 April 2020.

The committee heard that at the outset of the pandemic, the contact tracing team employed by DHHS had 57 staff, which was expanded to 230 individuals on 19 March 2020. On 11 August 2020 Ms Mikakos advised the committee that the contact tracing team had expanded to 1891 staff in June 2020 and at 10 August 2020 was made up of 2600 individuals.

The inquiry found that “the use of manual data entry processes at the beginning of the pandemic meant that the system for contact tracing and recording of testing was not fit to deal with any escalation in cases and led to significant errors.”

Cedar meats ‘surrendered’ to DHHS

Cedar Meats managing director Tony Kairouz said the company “surrendered” itself to DHHS during the outbreak.

“We did what they asked us to do and that’s what anyone would be expected to in that situation.

“The reality is the government has certainly taken a lot of learnings out of this and we’ve taken a lot of learnings out of it too.”

With the finding that there was a 13-day delay in DHHS starting contact tracing at Cedar Meats, in the future Mr Kairouz said the company would “absolutely not” wait for department requests for staff information.

“Absolutely, knowing what I know now I would be proactively forthcoming with more information than they asked for, but I didn’t know what they needed in the past.

“We basically surrendered ourselves to them completely and were in their hands and we relied on them to handle the situation, which was not of our making.”

Mr Kairouz said the company now had protocols to mitigate future outbreaks, including mandatory face mask use throughout the plant.

No complaints about Cedar Meats from DHHS

In its submission to the inquiry, Cedar Meats said that at no time did DHHS complain to Cedar Meats about a lack of cooperation, or for any other reason. Rather, to the contrary, DHHS was highly complimentary of Cedar Meats’ responsible and cooperative approach to what was (and remains) a very serious public health issue, the processor submitted.

DHHS submitted that its initial response focused on quarantining and testing close contacts, as the first few cases worked in the same area, which was followed by further contact tracing to identify any other visitors or contractors that may have been on-site.

DHHS made delayed requests for information

The inquiry found that detailed email communication between Cedar Meats and DHHS Public Health Operations staff in the course of managing the outbreak at the site demonstrated that:

  • DHHS did not request a list of all truck drivers that had been on-site at Cedar Meats Brooklyn facility for more than 30 minutes since 1 April 2020, until 3 May 2020. Cedar Meats provided this information on 4 May 2020.
  • DHHS did not request the contact details of four Commonwealth meat inspectors that had attended Cedar Meats in April 2020, until 5 May 2020. This information was provided by the company to DHHS verbally on 5 May 2020.
  • DHHS did not request a visitor log for the March to April period at the site until 11:53pm on 7 May 2020. This information was provided by Cedar Meats to the department on 8 May 2020.

Cedar Meats was responsive to all requests

The inquiry found that Cedar Meats was responsive to all requests for information by the DHHS regarding the COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.

Ms Mikakos was invited by the Committee on 10 August 2020147 to make further comment on the case, but did not provide a response.

At the public hearings on 15 December 2020, the chief executive of WorkSafe Victoria advised the committee that an investigation of Cedar Meats had not found evidence of any breaches of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.

In a submission to the inquiry, former acting manager of DHHS’ Communicable Disease Prevention and Control Unit Tom Voigt said multiple reports conducted in 2016, 2018 and 2019 recommended increasing the number of public health officers in the department.

In his final report prior to leaving the department at the end of his locum appointment in May 2019, six months prior to the emergence of COVID-19, Mr Voight recommended a two-stage increase in staffing for the contact tracing team from its existing baseline number of 14 public health officers to officers, “to allow existing workload demand to be met and to better prepare the CDPC unit for future outbreaks or surges in activity.”

Mr Voight submitted that the number of PHOs in Victoria responsible for investigating and responding to notifiable conditions was half the size of the next least resourced jurisdiction (New South Wales), despite Victoria having the highest population increase of all states and territories since 2013.

Click here to read the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee’s second report from its inquiry, including the Cedar Meats details on pages 37 and 38.

Click here to read the report from the Contact Tracing Inquiry by the Joint Upper House Committee.

 

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