As Sydney Covid infections spiral out of control, the efficiency of NSW’s lauded “gold standard” contact tracing system has become ever more critical. Cracks are appearing. Luke Stacey reports.
At what first appeared as a bizarre, perhaps Big Brother-like measure in its infancy, mandatory scanning of QR codes has become muscle memory for most Australians.
This minor inconvenience is commonly accepted as one of the key contact tracing defence mechanisms against furthering community transmission of the pandemic.
Broadly speaking, its purpose is to alert state Health Departments of close contacts at Covid-positive exposure sites, allowing them to inform these individuals to get tested and self-isolate for 14 days.
However, a Sydney resident has told Michael West Media that it took NSW Health six days to notify them that they were a close contact from the Woolworths in Glenrose Shopping Centre, Belrose.
During the six-day period, the close contact had re-entered the community, including visiting their elderly mother’s residence at a retirement village to deliver medicine. “Obviously, if I’d have known I was a close contact, I would never have put my 90-year-old mother at risk”, they said.
Delays have also been reported for the outbreak at Campsie Centre shopping mall.
This, against the tracing backdrop in Sydney where authorities have been unable to identify the source for almost 800 Covid infections. Despite increasingly harsh lockdowns, things are getting worse, not better.
All that glitters
Prior to the current outbreak, NSW had been lauded as the ‘Gold standard’ for managing the virus, namely through its contact tracing system. This accolade was echoed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who at the beginning of this outbreak told Sky News:
“New South Wales, I have no doubt, has the gold standard contact tracing system not just in Australia but in the world”.
Yet, the once golden State is now in its fifth week of lockdown, with at least another four to go. To make matters worse, NSW has reached new heights in its daily numbers, recording 239 positive cases of Covid-19 on 29 July.
🇦🇺 Total 33,726🔺253 (7 HQ)
🔬Tests 24.6m ↑ 152k
Dose 1️⃣ 8m
Dose 2️⃣ 3.5m
NSW🔺240 (1 HQ)
— C🍩VID Australia (@COVID_Australia) July 29, 2021
Midway through July, NSW sent an SOS to its fellow states to help bolster its contact tracing system. Granted, it is now dealing with a far more infectious strain in the Delta variant; one that has shortened the time between a person contracting the virus and becoming infectious by roughly two days.
Why the delay?
The Belrose resident had visited the Woolies in question on Sunday 18 July between the exposure timeframe as listed on NSW Health.
Yet, it wasn’t until Saturday 24 July that they received the text message from the state government ordering that they immediately get tested for the virus and self-isolate for two weeks (starting from the 18th).
Residents of close contacts must also immediately get tested and refrain from entering the community until they receive a negative test result. It means that those in the same household as the anonymous source had also unknowingly risked community transmission.
“When I finally received a call from [NSW Health] on the 27th, they told me I should’ve been wearing a face mask indoors and quarantining myself from my other family members at home.
“They’re telling me this stuff more than halfway through my two-week isolation period, during most of which I haven’t been isolating, because I didn’t know.”
Asked about the reasons for such a time delay, a spokesperson for NSW Health responded:
“When NSW Health receives notification of a positive case, that person is contacted, and a comprehensive interview is conducted to ascertain exactly where they have been while potentially infectious in the community. Therefore, the exposure venue can only be identified several days after the infected person was at the venue – which unfortunately then appears as a delay in notifying the public.”
They later said, “People identified through QR codes and other records receive a text message as soon as possible from NSW Health advising them to get tested and self-isolate until they receive further advice from contact tracers. Close contacts receive another text message and a phone call to discuss isolation requirements”.
At the time of their response, “NSW Health’s contact tracing team has spoken to 6,585 people and sent more than 21,100 text messages to those who had checked in via QR code”.
These numbers are a telltale sign of what contact tracers are trying to contend with in this highly transmissible Delta variant.
A research paper from June 2021 notes that while contact tracing is a key tool in the control of infectious diseases, its “efficacy decreased sharply with increasing delays between symptom onset and tracing and with lower fraction of symptomatic infections being tested … As cases rise, limited capacity [of contact tracers] results in only a fraction of contacts being reached each day before the next set of cases is detected”.
The anonymous source revealed that their neighbours who had visited Woolworths on 18 July received the close contact SMS alert days before they had.
According to the WHO: “Contact tracing for COVID-19 requires identifying people who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and following them up daily for 14 days from the last point of exposure”.
And although an argument could be made for a delay in notifying close contacts, the Belrose resident did not receive a phone call from NSW Health for nine days – more than halfway through their isolation period and three days after finally receiving their close contact status.
“During the phone call, NSW Health told me I would be contacted daily until the end of my isolation period to answer questions about any changes to my general health and ensure that I wasn’t leaving the house. I haven’t received any other follow up.”
Is this the ‘gold standard’ they’ve all been raving about?
The same standard where NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian delayed the current lockdown after considering not only the dubious “health advice”, but welcoming recommendations from business lobbyists.
The health advice from chief health officers of other states to their respective premiers is made publicly available. Yet NSW Health is yet to disclose any advice it provides to Premier Berejiklian, despite an FoI request from MWM.
Perhaps we should be looking to neighbouring state Victoria which lifted its lockdown on 28 July after containing the Delta variant to sufficient levels. Both Victoria and South Australia implemented statewide lockdowns at the outset, whereas NSW insisted initially on stay-at-home orders for Greater Sydney alone, despite cases being detected in regional areas such as Orange.
What’s more, Victoria’s Covid-19 Response Commander Jeroen Weimar has reinstated the “critical importance of close contacts serving their full 14 days of quarantine”.
Chink in the armour
A former Greens MP has also raised concerns about the potential disconnect between Service NSW and the state’s Health Department when it comes to the QR code system.
“If you’ve got a positive covid test you can still get on [public transport] and go to the supermarket because NSW Health doesn’t provide that information to Service NSW – the ones operating the QR codes”, they said.
“Why is it that the Health Department does not inform Service NSW that these people should be at home?”
Notwithstanding potential privacy concerns, China’s traffic light system using QR codes removed the ambiguity of infectious people within the community by categorising their health status in relation to the virus.
Australia’s QR codes fall short of this added layer of security by not discriminating against those who are infectious, those who are close contacts, and non-infectious individuals.
A method akin to the traffic light system could go a long way, especially when individuals are not informed for several days of their ‘close contact’ status.
Luke Stacey was a contributing researcher and editor for the Secret Rich List and Revolving Doors series on Michael West Media. Luke studied journalism at University of Technology, Sydney, has worked in the film industry and studied screenwriting at the New York Film Academy in New York. You can follow Luke on Twitter