As repatriation flights began increasing in 2020 for Australians returning home, I was deployed to work at the COVID emergency operations centre managing workforce to ensure we had sufficient staff in the quarantine hotels.
Back then, people arriving in Victoria from overseas were legally required to enter hotel quarantine for fourteen days. While in quarantine, guests were not permitted to leave their rooms except for medical emergencies or for compassionate or mental health reasons. No visitors were allowed and no care packages or deliveries from family or friends were permitted. The Victorian Government provided all essential items, services and medical care.
With limited staff resources, I often had to work in the hotels as a team leader whenever there were gaps in the roster.
One afternoon, I had to fill in for a shift on short notice because the team leader was feeling unwell. I had never been to this particular hotel before so, after receiving a handover, I went around to familiarise myself with the hotel’s layout and to meet my afternoon team of nurses, personal care assistants, authorised officers and one medical practitioner.
After checking the medicinal supplies with the nurses, I received a call informing me that one of the ‘guests’ had returned a day-three positive test result. As there was no vaccine available yet, strict infection control measures were being implemented to reduce the risk to staff and other people in quarantine. COVID swab tests were routinely conducted on days three and eleven, and people who returned a positive result were transferred via ambulance to a dedicated COVID-positive hotel—or to the hospital if they were medically unwell.
As soon as I received the news, taking care of this guest became my priority. I alerted the staff and spoke to the medical practitioner who was responsible for telling the guest his result. I proceeded to coordinate with the COVID-positive hotel, organised a transfer ambulance, and completed all required documents for the transfer. As the hotel team leader, it was also my responsibility to follow up with the guest to explain the transfer procedure and next steps.
Upon review of the guest’s notes, I found out that he had arrived with his elderly father with whom he now shared a room. His father, fortunately, had returned a negative result. However, the protocols meant that they would now be separated, so I knew my call would bring them unpleasant news.
I wish I could say this was a rare case, however, as the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic wore on, I saw significant disruption to people’s lives and heard many sad stories of families being separated.
I knew this would be an emotional conversation, so I had to prepare myself mentally and psychologically before talking with this guest. I rang the room and when the guest answered the phone, I introduced myself and my role. After he confirmed that he had spoken to the medical practitioner, I asked how he felt about his result. He said that he was shocked as the only symptom he had was a runny nose.
After explaining the next steps, including the process for his transfer to another hotel, he was quiet for a long time. Then he burst into tears. I listened to his concerns about leaving his elderly father alone. His father was in his mid eighties, had hepatitis, was frail, and did not speak English. He said that the family had already been through so much. He was afraid that his father might be unable to cope without him, struggle with his illness, and feel afraid on his own in an unfamiliar environment. However, he also understood the reason why they had to be separated. I felt his frustration and helplessness as he agreed with the difficult decision of transferring to the COVID-positive hotel to keep his loved one safe, not knowing what the future held.
After the call, I organised for him to speak with his father daily. I booked an interpreter to help the nurses when they conducted daily welfare checks with his father and asked for mental health support as being separated from each other, alongside the other effects of isolation, was causing them emotional and psychological distress. I also requested that our medical practitioner conduct a full health assessment of his father and organised the supply of his medications to the hotel.
Before the ambulance arrived for the son’s transfer, I inspected the dedicated exit pathway for taking COVID-positive guests out of the hotel. I also investigated if the hotel escort team had received training and been briefed about the process. When the ambulance arrived, I donned full PPE and personally went with the team to collect and escort the guest. When the door to his hotel room opened, I now had a face to the name. I saw the sadness in his eyes, but I also witnessed his courage and determination to protect his father and overcome this challenge.
Just before he stepped into the ambulance, he thanked me for all the arrangements I had made. He was extremely grateful, saying that this would never happen where he had come from and, despite the temporary separation, he felt they were lucky to be in Australia.