It has been more than a week since the last COVID-19 exposure site in Tasmania was added to the state government’s dedicated coronavirus website.
- Anxiety over a lack of information about exposure sites has spurred the creation of Facebook groups
- The state government wants the public to continue to source information from Public Health
- Concerns remain over rapid antigen test stocks
In that time, Tasmania has recorded more than 2,000 cases of the virus.
There’s also been a flurry of changes to the way the state deals with positive cases, including a shift in the definition of close contacts and a move away from listing casual and low-risk exposure settings.
They are decisions that have resulted in the creation of social media groups that are seeing Tasmanians take contact tracing into their own hands by crowdsourcing exposure sites.
In less than a week, the Facebook group Natalie Smith created to share information on unofficial exposure sites has gained more than 23,000 members.
“It has gone crazy, it has just boomed. It’s really overwhelming. I didn’t think it would go this far,” she said.
“Normally positive cases just message me with proof of their COVID result and sites where they had checked-in, and I post that up.
“People just want peace of mind, they want to know where the virus is and what is happening.”
Ms Smith said misinformation had been a concern for her, and had been attempting to verify each post, but said it was difficult because of the large amount of messages she had been receiving each day.
When asked about the potential spread of incorrect information on groups like Ms Smith’s, Health Minister Jeremy Rockliff said it was best to rely on information from Public Health.
“It’s not for me to comment on others social media activity; we are sticking to very good national guidelines and indeed being guided by Public Health advice here in Tasmania,” he said.
“My message really is one of reassurance. We are well prepared in terms of our health system and our hospital environment. We are communicating with the public on a daily basis.”
Too little too late?
In Tasmania, a close contact is someone who has spent more than four hours with a confirmed case, most likely in a household setting, but also at the same site, workplace or venue during a “significant transmission event”.
Despite Launceston’s Party in the Apocalypse music festival resulting in at least 25 cases of COVID-19, and health authorities earlier this week saying “significant transmission” had occurred at the event, it hasn’t made it to the list of existing public exposure sites.
Infectious diseases expert Robert Booy from the University of Sydney said Tasmania’s changing definition of a close contact could have been more “rational”.
“Quite honestly, anything between one and four hours is also high risk, so Tasmania could have taken a more conservative approach,” he said.
Professor Booy said while social media groups crowdsourcing exposure sites were popular, they probably won’t have a huge impact.
“It’s too late to say ‘this is the spot where it’s happening’, it’s happening everywhere,” he said.
“Tasmania is now in trouble, it is going to have a rapid rise in cases just as the rest of the country is.”
He said there was “no doubt” there were many more cases of the virus circulating in the state that are not being detected.
Rapid antigen tests still difficult to find
Tasmanians are also turning to social media to crowdsource information on where to buy increasingly hard-to-find rapid antigen tests.
Pharmacy Guild of Australia’s Helen O’Byrne said Tasmanian pharmacies were seeing huge demand for the tests, and in many cases, they had no stock left.
“The industry hasn’t really had the chance to change the importation of rapid antigen tests into Australia and get the distribution into the pharmacies and that could take some weeks,” she said.
“It would have been great if we could have had some notice of the change to the rapid antigen test protocols and also the changes to the definition of close contacts so that we could have been prepared.”
She said pharmacies having to close due to staff being exposed to COVID-19 was her greatest concern.
There was also increasing pressure on those working at the state’s stretched testing clinics, according to Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation’s Emily Shepherd.
“[They are] really difficult working environments. They’re working in PPE, they’re not able to take meal breaks and have hydration stops and they’re also saying that they need additional resources and administrative support to support them,” she said.
“Our nursing staff not only are conducting testing, they are running up the line of cars to take details from patients that haven’t made bookings. It is extremely stressful and incredibly fatiguing and it is absolutely unsustainable in its current workforce model.”