Jet Park Covid-19 quarantine hotel. Photo: John Sefton

Housing people involved in the current outbreak of Covid-19 in Auckland’s only quarantine facility raises the question of what happens when there’s no room at the inn

Currently 125 people linked to Auckland’s cluster have been moved to the Jet Park Hotel at Auckland Airport, leaving just 76 rooms in the quarantine facility available. 

This number includes 61 people who are positive and 64 household contacts. Another 21 are listed as being in quarantine who are linked to border cases.

In the next seven days, 2685 international arrivals are forecast. Most will be housed in managed isolation facilities, but any who develop Covid-19 will be shifted to a quarantine facility.

A Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)-managed isolation and quarantine spokesperson said there were 205 rooms at the hotel with varying capacity. Currently, 129 are occupied and 76 are vacant.

“It is possible the global pandemic may subside as it runs its course, but this situation may take several years to resolve.”

The minister in charge of managed isolation, Megan Woods, told RNZ’s Morning Report: “At the moment we have 75 rooms available in Jet Park and 100 extra that could be brought on. We’ve certainly got capacity.”

A written response from MBIE’s spokesperson to Newsroom’s query about plans if Jet Park Hotel reached capacity didn’t mention the extra 100 rooms: “We are always working to align capacity with demand and are always looking at what requirements will be necessary to safely accommodate future arrivals.”

The spokesperson said setting up a new quarantine facility would take work. 

“Managing more than one quarantine facility will require a significant multi-agency response to ensure the health and safety of the returnees and facility staff. This will involve central and local government officials, along with NZDF, police and security representatives working together to manage the facilities and provide health and wellbeing support, security and assistance to guests, hotel staff and other government agency personnel.”

Prior to this outbreak the need for extra quarantine rooms was low. In the two weeks prior to Auckland’s current outbreak, a total of 14 cases were reported and likely shifted to the quarantine facility.

The change in tack to shift close contacts to the facility is something Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said he had put a lot of thought into.

“Most transmission occurs in households. One of the features of the quarantine facilities is that arrangements are able to be put in place to keep positive and non-positive members of families apart. It helps reduce the risk of other household members getting infected. It can be very hard in a household situation.

“Since we have them there, and they are available, we felt it was best not just for those who test positive and their families but for the community to really strengthen our response.”

The need for suitable facilities

A June government paper on the quarantine and managed isolation system stressed the importance of isolation and quarantine facilities as a way to stop virus spread.

“It is possible the global pandemic may subside as it runs its course, but this situation may take several years to resolve. A treatment or vaccine may be developed and widespread immunity achieved, but this is not certain. A best case scenario is for an immunisation programme to begin early-mid 2021 with population immunity achieved late-2021.”

To be suitable for the purpose, hotels must have certain features, such as natural light in each room, space to move around within the room and separate toilet facilities in each room. The document noted these seemingly simple requirements weren’t commonplace:

“There are only a limited number of accommodation facilities that meet the requirements outlined in paragraph 17 for managed isolation and quarantine.”

There was a sense of urgency to lock in the use of the hotels until December 31.

“Contracts with hotels cannot be signed without an appropriation in place and there is material risk that without new funding, accommodation providers will begin to take public bookings, especially as domestic travel has now opened, thus reducing the capacity to provide managed isolation to new arrivals.”

The amount of $298 million was requested to cater for an estimated 288 offshore arrivals a day. From July 1 arrivals have averaged 320 a day.

Yesterday it was also announced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that Defence Force staff at hotels used for isolating or quarantine and maritime border would increase by 500.

“That will bring the total Defence Force personnel supporting the Covid-19 response to around 1200.”

This will mean 19 Defence Force staff will be assigned to each facility and 80 staff at the maritime border.

This means fewer private security guards will be used “especially in the high-risk facilities”. She said the intention was to eventually replace private contractors with security staff employed by MBIE.

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