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Entering Quarantine in Australia

July 17th, 2020

Dr Deb Mills

I travelled from Dunedin NZ to Brisbane on 10th July 2020. At that time there were no reported cases of community transmission of the new coronavirus in New Zealand so I considered I was more likely to get infected on the flight than bring the disease into Australia. I did not know how big a risk that might be.

I reasoned New Zealand can be a hub for persons flying from other places teeming with COVID-19.  I fully support understand the need for hotel quarantine etc and was interested to experience the process – and it’s the only international travel I’ll likely be doing in the near future.

 

I had received an email to arrive 3 hours before my flight to allow for “extra processing”

This I did, but the domestic terminal check-in was not open 3 hours before. Two hours before the departure of the domestic flight, the check-in opened. I experienced the extra processing – the check-in lady looked at my Australian passport and said “Good as gold”.

 

The flight from Dunedin to Auckland felt ordinary – crowded air terminal, no-one in masks – just like a the ‘normal’ pre- COVID world. This all changed when I stepped out of the domestic terminal and headed for the International Air Terminal. To transfer to an international flight in Auckland requires one follow a green painted line on the road around buildings etc between the two terminals. It’s a bit over a 10-minute walk, crossing roads usually with a little stream of other travellers behind and in front. This time, there were no other travellers on the walk.  On the way there were signs saying “watch for cars”.  There were no cars. There was no-one in front of the terminal building. The glass doors opened but the terminal itself was utterly empty, no-one to be seen. The lights were on, dozens of check in counters were waiting forlornly in the big empty space, but not a soul, not a staff member or a customer. Or even a cleaner.  It felt like the virus has killed everyone, and the world had ended.

 

Auckland International Airport 10th July 2020 about 5pm

 

There were two flights on the board in the airport but no gate numbers. The board said my flight was already boarding.

I was a bit worried about the “extra processing“, which might be needed, and it was only an hour before my flight. I don’t know that airport well so I wandered about trying to find where to go for the security check. There were no crowds to follow.

In due course, I found my way to a security checkpoint where there were 4 officers and me.

“A little bit quiet today” I said

“Oh yes just a little” they replied

It all seemed a masterful understatement.

 

You know how normally you walk through the big duty-free shop because they want you to buy things? This time travellers walked down a big cream tunnel – with just the edge of a CHANEL sign visible above the cream barriers.

 

Walking through the duty-free store, Auckland International Airport.

 

There were now a few persons dotted about and I followed the signs to the gates – any gates really   – no sign on the flight board for which gate, but I thought maybe gate 1 or 2 would be a good guess. Finally, I found a little duty-free shop and a helpful man selling alcohol to the soon-to-be-guests of Qld Health.

“Over there down those stairs”

Down I went and …  like the residents of Atlantis, there was a crowd under the stairs and a few normal looking flight attendants – but still no sign for which flight it was for. I went to the desk and asked. “Oh yes of course” in tone of why are you asking.

They weren’t boarding yet.

Now a few persons were wearing masks.

We boarded, the plan was maybe two thirds full, and a few more people were wearing masks and the flight attendants were wearing them. I was grateful the middle seat beside me was empty.

yours truly on plane

Flight time to Australia 3 hours 45 minutes

 

 

Landed at 8.30pm

 

 

23 minutes waiting on the plane

 

I noted that whilst we waited and the plane was on the ground, the air was not “going through the HEPA filters that clean the air more efficiently than shopping centres” like the airlines promise.  During that time, those who were flying on to Dubai were instructed to disembark – surprised to see it seemed like half the plane. Lots of announcements on the plane about COVID and “necessity for quarantine” and it’s an offence to run away. Finally invited to disembark – masks were now available if you wanted one.

 

39 minutes waiting in first part of the corridor  

 

On leaving the plane, masks were not enforced, or even mentioned. Maybe a third were wearing them. There were staff standing at the end of the airbridge handing out wads of paperwork. “You have to fill this in” they said.

 

If you did not have a pen, you had to go to those little benches and share pens with all the other people who had used them on the little benches.  Sharing utensils with fellow travellers, who have been on all and sundry arriving flights, seemed an unnecessary risk.  I used my own pen. I would like to have seen hand sanitiser on those benches.

 

The paperwork had the name of the VOCO hotel Surfers Paradise – some people were stressed as that seemed to indicate we would be going to the gold coast but staff with the forms did not know anything.

“Discuss it with the officers when you get through.” They said

 

We were required to wait our 39 minutes just where the airbridge gave onto the arrival hall. There were about 6 chairs way off down the corridor and a few more visible in the area past the barricade keeping us ‘in’.

“Another plane had arrived first” we were told  “You have to wait until they had been processed.”

 

People sat on the floor, or milled about with little social distancing. The floor, from studies in hospitals, is known to be a high-risk area for COVID-19 – virus falling from lungs and hanging about on the floor….

Hard to say if sitting on the floor is a risk factor but as well as not very nice welcome to QLD seemed an unnecessary viral risk.  Surely Qld is rich enough to afford some chairs.

 

The barricade was released and on we flowed.

 

26 minutes to get to the bag collection

 

On passing through passport control, I noted the buttons on the passport arrival terminal had to be touched.  No, I have not been to Africa or South America in the last 6 days.  No hand sanitiser after I touched the buttons.  Perhaps the airport could issue people with cotton tips with their wads of paper so they don’t have to touch the buttons and can throw the cotton tip in the bin beside the machine.

 

There were special desks off to the side of the normal arrival procedure. They were staffed by officials to fill out our most important “Quarantine Direction”. There row of desks did not look very distanced and there seemed lots of crowding around. Did not look like 1.5m social distancing to me.

Prior to my arrival, I had been corresponding with Qld Health for over a month about my food allergies. I had to obtain and provide a letter from my doctor and send information with the alleged promise of a kitchenette. Of course, the officers at the quarantine desk knew nothing of this. Of course, the hotel at the gold coast had no kitchenettes in any room. And of course, there was no choice to stay closer to home and the source of all care packages.  Of course, it was just part of their bureaucratic (torture) system to raise expectations with absolutely no system to actually make it happen. We were released to get our luggage.

 

1-minute collecting bags and 40 minutes waiting for the 3 buses  

 

When we waited for the bus with our bags, there was limited social distancing but at least there were chairs.  The chairs could be moved around by those using them, so distancing was up to us or not at all.

One poor child was crying inconsolably. According to the mother, the poor child was upset from hunger.  The mother asked “Where they might we get some milk? “

The guard answered helpfully

“Do you have any powdered milk?”

“No” she replied

“Nothing is available” here he said.

This raised her stress level, the child’s stress level, the guards stress level and the stress level of all the other people waiting. Perhaps the woman had no idea that it would take 4 hours to be processed.

 

 

69 minutes on the bus to Surfers paradise

 

The bus to the hotel was not socially distanced – maybe a third wore masks.

I would like to have seen a reminder on boarding the bus to spread out, wear masks etc…but no   We were the last (third) bus. All the occupants except one were crowded into the front of the bus – (one lone paranoid travel doctor sat with mask on, at the back of the bus, blessing the fact that we had come from virus free New Zealand not the virus infested USA.)

 

30 minutes sitting on bus waiting to disembark

 

On arrival at the hotel, we sat in the drive-way, motor off, waiting our turn to leave. Families got off first of course.

Now they wanted masks.

But they did not have enough masks on the bus when we were getting off.  One masked lady with an unmasked and remarkably calm toddler waited for some time while the bus driver tried to find her baby a mask. I wondered what the evidence base was for 2-year-olds wearing masks and how that could be compared with the risk of aerosol spread from unmasked adults on a 69-minute crowded bus ride.

No mask was found but reason prevailed and the lady and child were allowed to disembark.

 

29 minutes waiting at front of hotel until entering hotel room

 

We waited in the area in front of the glass entry doors of the hotel. It was raising but there was a big cover over the area.  We were guarded by various uniformed police ensuring good social distancing. Young guys dressed in army uniforms and hotel workers confirmed our suitcases. Suitcases went in first.

We would have to see the hotel and Qld health officers when we went inside.

Masks had been found and now one of the ushers in the waiting area was on a mission.

The usher lady had no uniform, no name badge and not even a perfunctory introduction, demanded of me “Has that mask been on for a while?”

Whilst I tried to wondered how she defined a ‘while’, and pondered whether I should advise her that it would be better to ask is “is your mask wet?“

My silent pause was enough to encourage her and she was insistent that I had to remove my mask – no hand sanitiser or instructions except to do it ‘over the bin’.

Then to my horror, eying my carefully nurtured mask in the bin, she took my new masks out of its box, put her fingers all over the mask and nose bridge and handed it to me expectantly. I hoped that she had recently used hand sanitiser but I was slowly losing the will to live. It was by now well past my bedtime (14 hours since leaving home and about 2.30am NZ time), and I was feeling a bond with the screaming child from the baggage area).

I put the mask on my face and trusted to the lack of reported community spread of COVID-19 in Qld. Flashing through my mind were stories about spread of virus from quarantine stations in Victoria with sharing of cigarette lighters and more.  Others were also asked to change masks.  I would have company in the outbreak.  At this stage we were at best 10 minutes from our hotel room.

 

I was allowed into the hotel – a cheerful lady in a green shirt and mask welcomed me to her little table and asked me to fill in paperwork, advised my room number, confirmed there were no kitchenettes but offered me a microwave. I took the offer of the microwave and shuffled across to the Qld Health officer. I was pleased to see the lady in green sanitised the counter, sanitised the pen (even though I had used my own)  and places the (potentially contaminated)  paper I had been touching in a box on the floor.

The Qld health officer sat at her computer asked me about allergies, medical problems,  tablets I was on etc. I told her to work on the usher to stop handling the masks.

Next stop a care package with lots more paperwork. Someone was standing by the lift telling me “Don’t touch the lift buttons“ and the doors shut and whisked me to my floor.

I had read that some guests in quarantine don’t even get a room key so I felt quite fortunate to have a door card, even though I only get to use it once. 12.47am inside room

 

I wonder how many persons who are found to be COVID positive in hotel quarantine with the virus were infected in the journey from aircraft to hotel. At least coming from NZ, this would be apparent to any contract tracer but coming from USA etc, no-one would realise.

 

Time to fly Auckland to Brisbane 3 hours and 45 minutes

Time to go from plane to hotel 4 hours 17 minutes

 

View from my window – no there is no balcony, closest I get to outside for two weeks.

 

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