Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton says a COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne’s south-east is coming under control, and has apologised for statements that caused some in the Afghan community to feel targeted this week. Brett Sutton has worked in Afghanistan in 1999 and 2003 and has a high level of respect for the Afghan community and its values.
Before providing an update on the coronavirus situation at today’s press conference, Professor Sutton first apologised for comments he made this week when he offered to speak to multicultural groups in the Casey area about the outbreak.
“Having been to Afghanistan a couple of times over the years, I want to be able to reflect on my cultural experiences and the fact I know that there are universal motivations that every family has: to do the right thing, to protect their families,” Professor Sutton said on Monday.
Some local community leaders expressed concern the remarks targeted the Afghan community, and warned the comments may make some community members feel “ashamed”. Afghan community leader, Homaira Mershedi, said her community had been unfairly “singled out” over the Casey outbreak.
“There’s a sense of guilt now that is put in them and I think it will stop Afghan people going and getting tests done in case they are positive.”
She also said she was concerned about the future when restrictions eventually started to ease, saying she feared Afghan businesses could suffer and children from the community could be bullied at school.
At today’s press conference, Professor Sutton said he wanted to start with an apology.
“I know that members of the Afghan community might have felt singled out by statements I made recently,” he said.
“That was absolutely not my intention, so sorry.
“I have volunteered a couple of times to work in Afghanistan in 1997 and 2003, it’s a country I love and respect and its people.”
He said it was “inappropriate” of him to have mentioned Afghanistan specifically on Monday, when he was only intending to reflect on the “universal human experience” that everyone had in caring for their families.
“It inadvertently called out Afghanistan, which I think was inappropriate, but I was just reflecting on my experience of working with diverse communities internationally, in humanitarian work and the fact that there really is a universal human experience,” he said.
“We all want to look after our families, we all want to protect the broader community. I think that is the case across Melbourne.
“We need to enable people to do the right thing and to support them in doing the right thing.”
Outbreak ‘under control’
Professor Sutton said the outbreak was “under control” but authorities would be carefully monitoring the situation over the 14-day period when new cases could emerge in close contacts.
“What we do know is people are isolating appropriately and their close contacts are in quarantine, but people have obviously been exposed to the virus and they can develop illness any time up to 14 days after having been exposed,” he said.
“But very few close contacts outside of the cluster that’s known … that is very reassuring from a control perspective.”
Victorian health authorities confirmed yesterday that the cluster was spread across five households in the suburbs of Hallam, Clyde, Narre Warren South and Cranbourne North, which are all within the City of Casey local government area.
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) said members of the five households had visited houses beyond the 5-kilometre radius permitted under metropolitan Melbourne’s stage 4 restrictions.
The chief executive of Monash Health, Andrew Stripp, said local community health care services were working closely with the DHHS and the Casey community to contain the “significant” cluster.
“It’s significant in the sense it’s 34 people and a number of households and it’s gone against the trend.”
But he said the area’s infection prevention team and good local contacts were aiding a quick response to the outbreak.
“The community’s responding very well, the families themselves are isolating, so I think it’s travelling in the right direction,” Mr Stripp told ABC Radio Melbourne.
“Our community health services have been working with the local community very closely … and were able to respond and be on the ground and visit the houses and have what are sometimes difficult discussions, very personal discussions, in relation to the contact tracing process in a very successful way.”
Mr Stripp said Monash Health had been working with all community leaders to ensure they knew the risks posed by COVID-19 and he urged people even with only the mildest of symptoms to get tested.
“Our team have been working with this particular [Afghan] community closely … we’re aware that in some areas that people are concerned that if they go into a testing station they’re more at risk of being infected.
“That’s not the case … we provide a safe environment for people to be tested,” he said.
More than 4,000 people have been tested in the Casey area in the past week, and 11 testing sites are open including drive-though clinics in Dandenong and Cranbourne as well as other testing sites in Clyde, Hallam and Noble Park.
Other community support workers, including Leanne Petrides from the Cranbourne Information and Support Service, said everyone across the municipality was working to get the message out to people to get tested.
“[We] keep pushing the message, particularly over the next couple of weeks as it’s going to be absolutely vital,” she said.
Ms Petrides declined to mention the Afghan community, instead stressing that all people from across the entire Casey community were doing their best to stop the spread of the virus.
“I wouldn’t want to pick out any one community,” she said.
“We’ve seen people from many different communities, including, dare I say, my own Australian community who have been going out there and breaking some of the guidelines and rules that the Chief Health Officer has put down for us.”
Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng said yesterday there was a focus on testing people who had visited the Fountain Gate Shopping Centre in Narre Warren.
“We think that most of the cases are linked to contact between these households but there have been visits to Fountain Gate,” he said.
Ms Petrides said while Fountain Gate was a large shopping complex, people needed to stay within their 5km radius and not go out in groups.