A restaurant posts a closed sign in Melbourne

Returning travelers in quarantine hotels may have triggered Melbourne’s latest lockdown

After getting a taste of some version of normalcy, Melbourne went into another lockdown this week. Five million residents will be barred from leaving their homes except for essential reasons and orders between Victoria closed between neighboring states are shut down.

Parts of Australia are battling a second wave of coronavirus cases.

Officials have reimposed a lockdown in Melbourne for six weeks following a surge in cases linked to social distancing breaches in hotels where returned travelers were held in quarantine. The state of Victoria, where Melbourne is located, reported 288 new cases Friday, a record daily increase for any part of the country. 

In addition to forcing 5 million people to stay home for all but essential business, the flare-up has led the rest of the country’s states to ban Victorians from entering and dealt a blow to hopes for a speedy recovery for the nation’s economy.

The state’s chief health officer warned there would be a sharp rise in hospitalizations, intensive care cases and deaths in the coming days as a result of the spike in infections.

Victoria on Friday also became the first state in the country to urge people to wear masks when they leave home. Citing the latest outbreak in Melbourne, Australian officials said they will cut the number of citizens allowed to return home from overseas each week by half. 

Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician and microbiologist who teaches at the Australian National University Medical School, spoke with The World about what triggered Melbourne’s second lockdown.

Related: Citing COVID-19, Australian court bans George Floyd protests in Sydney

Carol Hills: The rest of Australia seems to be pretty stable where the pandemic is concerned. What happened in Melbourne? 

Peter Collignon: There’s a few things that happened in Melbourne. Australia has been very fortunate. We had about 7,000 cases and about 106 deaths. This is in a population of 26 million. But in Melbourne, most of our cases have been returned, visitors or travelers from both North America, the US and Europe. And we still put all those people … we quarantined them in quarantine hotels. And one of the big factors in Melbourne is that the security guards who basically were looking after one of these hotels or even a couple weren’t keeping physical distancing, weren’t wearing protective equipment — and in fact, were having quite close contact with a lot of these returned visitors where they quarantined for two weeks. 

What are quarantine hotels? 

What happens in Australia is any person who comes from any other country back to Australia is put into quarantine. In other words, kept in a room in a hotel for two weeks before they’re allowed in the community. And that’s because the incubation period of this virus is usually about five days. But the range is usually 10 to 12 days. And now they’re also tested before they’re released to make sure they haven’t got COVID. So it’s all an attempt to try and keep COVID from being reintroduced into Australia now that we’ve got very low levels of transmission in the community.

So most of these new cases are really traced to these quarantine hotels. What was going on in the quarantine hotels that shouldn’t have been going on?

First of all, the security guards, they had there … Melbourne was a little bit different from the rest of Australia in that they just employed security guards and gave them, from what I can see, very little training. Because in New South Wales, for instance, which is the state north of Victoria, they actually had, often, police involved. And even defense personnel were involved, and there was more training and better supervision. So I think that was an issue.

And from what you can hear in these stories, I don’t know how true they are. Some of the security guards were playing even cards with some of the people they’re supposed to be in quarantine and avoiding and even much closer relationships, if you can believe what’s in some of the media and letting them out to go shopping, a whole lot of things — and particularly not wearing appropriate protection, such as masks, for instance, and the other things, plastic face shields, which make a lot of difference for you not getting droplets. But a lot of those things seem not to have been followed. There’s going to be a judicial investigation into what happened. And I guess that’ll come out with more facts rather than rumors. But there doesn’t seem to be much doubt that something went really wrong in that particular state, and particularly because here there is an issue about how much you privatize. This was privatized security, rather than having a mixture of state supervision with police and defense personnel. And I guess that’ll be an issue that will be looked at further. 

When I hear the numbers that Australia has, they just are so small compared to the US. And I wonder, we’re talking about more than 3 million cases in the US, over 130,000 deaths. As you watch from a distance, what are your thoughts on this? We’re still in our first surge. Do you have any recommendations? 

Well, we look in horror … that’s all I can say. Look, I don’t think I know all the answers, but this is predominately spread by droplets. I think if you actually have a lot of community transmission, which I think relatively speaking is what we regard Melbourne at the moment, but still, it’s less than one in a thousand people that probably might have the infection.

But basically, you’ve got to do everything you can to stop the droplets spreading. So that’s limiting who you associate with and how many people you interact with. But particularly it’s wearing masks. Because surgical masks and face masks, cloth masks are very protective, probably for more people around you rather than yourself, because it means you’ve you have the infection and you cough or sneeze, providing you’re wearing the mask properly. It stays more confined to your face rather than going everywhere else. So that, I think, makes a difference if a large proportion of people are wearing them and there is a lot of community transmission. If once you start getting a reasonable amount and in Melbourne currently, even though it’s so low by US figures, I think in that situation, that’s when you need to start doing those things. 

This interview has been condensed and edited. Reuters contributed to this report.

Are you with The World?

The story you just read is available to read for free because thousands of listeners and readers like you generously support our nonprofit newsroom. Every day, the reporters and producers at The World are hard at work bringing you human-centered news from across the globe. But we can’t do it without you: We need your support to ensure we can continue this work for another year.

When you make a gift of $10 or more a month, we’ll invite you to a virtual behind-the-scenes tour of our newsroom to thank you for being with The World.