Colac scrambles to house people needing to self-isolate amid abattoir outbreak

By Benjamin Preiss

July 22, 2020 — 6.31pm

Local authorities in Colac are struggling to find alternative accommodation for dozens of people forced to isolate amid attempts to contain the worst outbreak in regional Victoria.

Of the 26 active cases in the Colac Otway region on Wednesday, 17 were linked to the outbreak at the Australian Lamb Company abattoir. The business has now been closed, with hundreds of workers required to quarantine themselves. A number of clusters have broken out at abattoirs during the pandemic, including Cedar Meats and JBS in Brooklyn, with close working conditions and refrigeration proving particularly challenging in preventing infections.

Despite the spike in cases in Colac, in the state's south-west, the state government said it had no plans to extend stage three restrictions beyond Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC As the day unfolded: Victoria records 484 new COVID-19 cases as Thai Rock Wetherill Park cluster grows in NSW; Australian death toll stands at 128 Colac Otway Shire chief executive Peter Brown said in a statement the council was struggling to find accommodation for many people required to self-isolate.

"We are aware there are up to 50 people who are in share houses and need separate accommodation to be able to isolate, which council is working with other agencies to secure," he said.

"Colac has limited accommodation options at any time and finding appropriate places is challenging."

Mr Brown said some people who had never accessed the council’s Meals on Wheels or other services now needed support. Colac Otway Shire mayor Jason Schram said businesses and residents had taken it upon themselves to stay home to prevent spreading the virus. "The majority of people are following stage three restrictions and only going out if they need to," he said.

The Melbourne meatworks at the centre of a coronavirus outbreak begins to open its doors on Monday.

He previously called for a two-week lockdown in the town so that comprehensive testing and contact tracing could be undertaken.

Local Liberal MP Richard Riordan said authorities had been slow to provide advice to residents seeking information about the outbreak. "We’re the first bad outbreak [in regional Victoria]. We need to be learning from what’s going on here and it’s not good," he said.

The Age contacted the Australian Lamb Company, but it did not reply. Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes said abattoirs had been given assistance to take precautions against the possibility of an outbreak.

Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters there had previously been "blanket testing" in some workplaces where there had been significant outbreaks, including meatworks, but he stopped short of saying there would be mandatory testing across industries such as abattoirs. "It’s something that might be needed in the future," he said. The Premier said he would need more advice before testing every worker within a given sector. "We’ve only got so much lab capacity on any given day and we wouldn’t want a situation where we were testing people who had a very low probability of having the virus."

Australian Industry Meat Council chief executive Patrick Hutchinson said abattoirs had introduced extensive measures to prevent the virus spreading at plants. But he said industries with large workforces were vulnerable to infections. "It’s not a meat industry issue, it’s a community issue," he said. Greater Geelong had the second-greatest number of infections outside Melbourne, with 18 active cases on Wednesday. Ballarat had 10 cases, while Golden Plans had eight and Moorabool five.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said cases in regional Victoria made up a small proportion of all active cases.

There were 3408 active cases across the state, including Melbourne, yesterday. "We will consider as we do every day what the numbers show and if there’s any requirement to extend the restricted area beyond metro Melbourne and Mitchell Shire," he said.

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