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DHHS warns of legal action after company asked close contacts of COVID infected to go home for tests

Victorian health officials told a commercial cleaning company that employees who shared a shift with an infected worker were not ‘close contacts’ and did not need to isolate. 

Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services read Melbourne company Demos Property Services, which specialises in COVID disinfection services, the riot act after it dared to ask what it believed to be close contacts of a COVID-infected worker to go home. 

In a series of documents seen by Daily Mail Australia, DHHS suggests the company could face legal repercussions after it sent the nine workers home. 

Firefighters planning to take food into Melbourne towers suspected of having COVID-19 took no chances in July

Firefighters planning to take food into Melbourne towers suspected of having COVID-19 took no chances in July 

Health workers prepare to enter a COVID-19 infected aged care facility in July

Health workers prepare to enter a COVID-19 infected aged care facility in July 

The cleaners had all worked a shift with a colleague found to have tested positive to COVID 19.

It is understood the worker’s infection was linked to the outbreak within Victoria’s COVID-plagued aged care sector.  

As part of the company’s COVIDSafe plan, it sent the workers home and asked that they isolate for 14 days and be tested.

But the company’s managers were shocked at the response they received from DHHS officials upon learning of the company’s seemingly responsible actions. 

In an email dated September 3, a team leader from DHHS’ Novel Coronavirus Response Team stated it did not class the nine workers as close contacts.  

‘I recommend that you review (the company) COVIDplan; it is your prudence and prerogative to furlough the 9 staff who shared the same shift as the case, however please note that these staff members are not deemed close contacts by the DHHS and thus we will not be liable for your actions,’ the team leader wrote.

What Does DHHS Consider A Close Contact? 

Close contact = greater than 15 minutes face-to-face, cumulative, or the sharing of an indoor space for more than two hours, with a confirmed case during their infectious period.

Period for contact tracing = Contact needs to have occurred during the period of 48 hours prior to onset of symptoms in the confirmed case until the confirmed case is no longer considered infectious to be deemed close contact.

‘Furthermore, I strongly urge you reconsider your stance that the confirmed case will not be permitted to return to work (even with DHHS clearance letter) if she does not return 2 x consecutive negative results’ as this does not align with case and contact management guidelines set out by the DHHS.’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week slammed the Victorian Government for its performance in contact tracing. 

Victoria’s daily coronavirus case total dropped on Thursday to 51 new cases recorded overnight.

But the state hit a grim new milestone after seven deaths were recorded, with 701 total deaths.

‘New South Wales has a stronger capability when it comes to tracing,’ Mr Morrison said on Monday. 

‘And we want to provide support — as we already have — to the Victorian government through the ADF.’

The cleaning company had already endured a previous bad experience with the health department after it took three weeks to respond after another of its cleaners contracted the virus.  

Cleaners have contracted COVID-19 from the aged care sector, which has been plagued with the virus

Cleaners have contracted COVID-19 from the aged care sector, which has been plagued with the virus 

Cleaners have put themselves in the front line of COVID-19 infection risk

Cleaners have put themselves in the front line of COVID-19 infection risk 

‘The above is instructing us to ‘water down’ our requirements for allowing people to return to work post being tested positive for COVID-19,’ a Demos manager returned fire to DHHS.

‘How will we beat ‘this terrible enemy’ as our Premier refers to COVID by not being as cautious as we are?

‘Our approach is one of caution – and has been from the outset of this Pandemic. Our Covid-Safe Plans ensures the safety of all our staff, clients and community as a whole and will not be amended.

‘Furthermore, the last case which we had of an employee (DHHS contact 3 weeks post event) tested positive for over a week post his clearance. The doctor retesting him confirmed that, as this is a ‘new’ virus, we cannot be 100% certain that it is not communicable post a definitive.’ 

The company further lashed out at DHHS’ tardy response to the positive infection, which it claims took more than two full days to contact the company after it was notified. 

‘We were contacted 52 hours post lodgement by Dept of Jobs, Precincts and Regions,’ DHHS was told. 

‘Representatives from Jobs Precincts and Regions confirmed that due to no resourcing at DHHS and ‘contact tracing problems’ they had been seconded to ‘assist you’ with these calls and preliminary information collection.’

The infected worker had also told DHHS contact tracers that she worked for Demos a day earlier when she received the positive result, but it was ignored.

Cleaners are about the only people that remain on the streets of Melbourne apart from parking inspectors

Cleaners are about the only people that remain on the streets of Melbourne apart from parking inspectors

A Melbourne cleaning company was told by the health department not to send home staff it had deemed close contacts of an infected employee. Pictured: People prepare to enter a COVID plagued housing tower in July

A Melbourne cleaning company was told by the health department not to send home staff it had deemed close contacts of an infected employee. Pictured: People prepare to enter a COVID plagued housing tower in July

DHHS had attempted to blame the delay on the company and a lack of transparency between other government departments. 

Demos Property Services general manager Penelope Demos expressed dismay at the DHHS response and told Daily Mail Australia its CovidSafe Plan was where all business’ should be at. 

‘It’s just an ongoing comedy of errors by DHHS,’ she said. 

Ms Demos said the company would not be adjusting its CovidSafe Plan to meet DHHS’ ‘lower requirements’.

‘I’m not going to be taking a risk by putting our clients at any risk,’ she said. 

Ms Demos said that under Premier Daniel Andrews’ state of emergency powers, the usual workplace authority – WorkSafe – is not in control of workplace safety. 

‘They’re no longer the highest authority. It’s actually DHHS with their lower standards and WorkSafe are bound by them when they write their reports,’ she said. 

A DHHS spokesperson said the DHHS provides public health advice on what companies should do with employees identified by DHHS as positive cases or close contacts, and provides general advice on how to ensure workplaces are COVID-safe.

‘The case and contact management team does not provide legal advice in any circumstances – and certainly not about what companies should do with employees who are not identified as positive cases or close contacts.’

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