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While an unsuspecting city was tucked up in bed late last Saturday, the virus was out and about down Chapel Street enjoying a night on the tiles.
It began with a few drinks and a quiet chat with friends at Three Monkeys, a lounge bar known for its potent cocktails and laid-back vibe. Owner Antony Harvey was there at 9.15pm when the virus first walked in.
“It wasn’t crazy but it was solid,” he said of the crowd that night.
Health Minister Martin Foley says getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is the most important thing people can do.Credit:Justin McManus
After an hour or so the virus felt like a change of pace. It walked across the street and at about 10.30pm, joined the throng inside Somewhere Bar, a Chapel Street institution that holds house parties every Saturday night.
A pair of local DJs were spinning disks and the place was jammed with 20-somethings blissfully unaware that a particularly virulent strain of coronavirus had joined the party. The virus, now in the mood for a big one, danced for an hour, popped back into the Three Monkeys just before 1am closing and then headed off towards Circus Bar on Commercial Road.
There, among the leather booths and plush velvet drapes of the popular, late night spot, the session continued on till nearly 4am.
A notice posted on Instagram by the Three Monkeys bar on Chapel Street, Prahran. Credit:Instagram
All it will take, Professor Blakely says, is for cases to emerge that can’t be linked to others in the northern suburbs cluster. “If even one case occurs among somebody who is not a known contact already, I think they will hit the lockdown button,” he said.
Professor Blakely says there is a frustrating familiarity to this outbreak. It is almost a year to the day since Melbourne’s second wave epidemic broke out of a quarantine hotel. All cases in the current cluster have been genomically linked to a quarantine hotel in Adelaide.
The policy prescription, however, is dramatically changed.
Where a year ago, we were being told to keep our distance from one another, wash our hands and get tested, Health Minister Martin Foley says there is now something more important many of us can do.
“Getting vaccinated, if you are eligible, is the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself, your loved ones and the community,” Mr Foley said.
Victoria was concerned as recently as two weeks ago that the vaccine roll-out was being hampered by insufficient supply. That has now changed, with Acting Premier James Merlino and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton declaring there is enough AstraZeneca and Pfizer available in Victoria to inoculate anyone who is eligible for a jab.
“The issue now in Victoria is people coming forward to get the vaccine,” Professor Sutton said. “We have got the supply, we have got the infrastructure to deliver it. We want people to book in, to walk in and to get the vaccine.”
The take-up of vaccines in Victoria, where AstraZeneca is available to anyone aged 50 and over and Pfizer to younger people at higher risk from COVID-19 due to their profession, medical history or circumstance, has been plagued by hesitancy about the safety of AstraZeneca.
In the days since the northern suburbs outbreak was first reported, any such hesitancy appears to have waned.
Jan Ireland, 73, is vaccinated by Jestine Lyra Lubrica at Melbourne Showgrounds on Wednesday.Credit:Eddie Jim
A record 15,858 people in Victoria lined up on Tuesday to receive their jabs at GP clinics and government-run vaccination centres. On Wednesday, people previously reluctant to get the AstraZeneca vaccine joined the queue at a vaccination centre at the Melbourne Showgrounds, which opened last week.
Jan Ireland, a 73-year-old midwife from Yarraville, said the latest outbreak had overridden her previous concerns about getting sick from the vaccine. Samantha Byrne, a podiatrist from East Keilor, was also lined up for her shot. “Whilst I was a bit hesitant considering I’m still breastfeeding I did my research and to keep my family safe thought it was important to come and get vaccinated,” she said.
Professor Blakely is booked in to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine on Sunday. “It is critical that we use this event to get people vaccinated,” he said. “This will happen again and again and the more of us who get vaccinated, the better for the future.”
Mr Merlino said there was also a sense of urgency about his government and Canberra agreeing to terms on a new quarantine centre to serve as an alternative to housing returned travellers and people infected with COVID-19 in city hotels.
Melbourne University epidemiologist Tony Blakely.
Senior bureaucrats from the Victorian and federal governments are negotiating a Victorian proposal to build a new quarantine facility on vacant Commonwealth land at Mickleham, in the city’s north, or at Avalon Airport, near Geelong.
Mr Merlino said the origins of the outbreak underscored the pressing need for better quarantine arrangements.
“We know that the best way to defeat outbreaks and the best way to defeat the pandemic is one, the successful rollout of the Commonwealth’s vaccine program and secondly, have an alternative quarantine system, particularly for our most highly at risk individuals.”
Acting Premier James Merlino.Credit:Justin McManus
In the meantime, the scale of the challenge confronting Victoria’s contract tracers is evident in the array of more than 50 exposure sites now listed by the Department of Health.
Each of these venues got a similar call to the one received by Mr Harvey’s partner from a Monash Health contact tracer at 8.10pm on Tuesday night telling them that a patron at their business had tested positive to COVID-19.
“The initial call was alarming and disturbing but our thoughts were for our staff and patrons,” he said. “We immediately jumped on the phone and got them isolated and they have all been tested, which is fantastic.” He posted news of the positive test on the bar’s social media pages about 12 hours before it was listed as an exposure site.
Mr Harvey bought the Three Monkeys about 18 months ago, just as the novel coronavirus was emerging in China. Before owning a bar, he consulted to business and government as an expert in risk, crisis management and disaster recovery.
His bar uses the Services Victoria app and QR code system and his staff are fastidious about making sure all patrons check in. About 150 checked in on Saturday night. By now, all should have been contacted by the Department of Health.
“Quite frankly, it is a timely and sudden reminder for businesses big and small to take this stuff seriously,” he said.
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