A detention centre guard in Brisbane has been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, heightening fears about the spread of the virus in immigration detention.
Refugees, asylum seekers and other immigrants held at the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation (BITA) centre and the Kangaroo Point Central hotel, which is being used as a detention facility, were told of the Serco staffer's positive test on Wednesday night.
The guard has not worked in the facility since March 7, an Australian Border Force (ABF) officer told detainees in the announcement at BITA. "That is 11 days ago, I think that's important," she can be heard saying in video published on social media.
It is not clear whether the sick Serco staffer worked at Kangaroo Point or at BITA, or across the two facilities.
A refugee, H, who has been held at Kangaroo Point for months after being brought to Australia from Papua New Guinea for medical treatment, told BuzzFeed News the 80 or so men detained in the hotel were sitting in the dining room after dinner on Wednesday night when they were told to go to the common room for an urgent meeting with ABF.
The men were informed that a single officer had contracted the coronavirus, and were told they would get more information on Thursday or Friday.
The ABF staff who spoke to them took questions but could not share much information, H said. "The last time he came to work was like March 7, but maybe he had it before that and he was still coming to work, but we are not really sure," he said.
The men asked about the government's directive that non-essential gatherings of 100 or more should stop, H said, but were told that only applied to 100 or more people in the one room.
"We're eating in one room," H said, estimating that over 100 people were in the dining room at dinner time, including detainees and staff.
In the Wednesday announcement, the officer also said the Department of Home Affairs had implemented new health measures in detention centres, including the screening of all staff, restrictions on non-contact visits, and additional cleaning of high traffic areas.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, an ABF spokesperson said there were no confirmed cases among detainees.
"The department and its service providers are working with and on the advice of Queensland health officials and will undertake any contact tracing they identify as necessary," they said.
But anxiety is high among refugees and asylum seekers in detention, as there is little they can do to protect themselves from exposure to the virus. Many have been transferred to Australia from offshore detention due to medical conditions that could make them particularly vulnerable.
H said he could not sleep last night because he had a sore throat and was worried about the virus. "Everyone is scared," he said.
Social distancing is proving difficult in detention. "They said you should [leave] 1.5 metres distance between each person," H said." But we are stuck. It's too small, we're just sitting very closely to each other."
People held in various detention centres and hotels have told BuzzFeed News of their concerns that security guards, medical workers and other detention staff are not subject to rigorous screening when they come to work, and that they are handling food without wearing gloves.
A detainee at the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA) centre wrote to ABF over his concerns about the coronavirus last Thursday. "If just one person gets ill with the virus, the rest of us are at high risk of also contracting it," he wrote, requesting he be released to private accommodation. He has not received a response.
At the Mantra Bell City hotel in Melbourne's Preston, which is being used as a makeshift detention centre, men had started to avoid common rooms and were storing food in their rooms in case they need to go into isolation.
Fears were heightened in the MITA centre over the weekend after a man who had been coughing did not return from a visit to the doctor. That evening, his room was extensively cleaned by people in hazmat suits, leading to speculation that he had been diagnosed with COVID-19. A video of the cleaning circulated widely on social media among refugee and detainee communities.
The ABF said in an email statement on Saturday there were no confirmed cases of the disease in the detention system. BuzzFeed News understands the man is now out of quarantine and was not diagnosed with COVID-19.
"If clinically indicated, detainees will be isolated and tested in line with advice from the Department of Health and the broader Commonwealth response," the ABF said on Saturday.
"A range of measures have been introduced to keep detainees and staff informed of preventive measures and plans have been established to manage any suspected cases of COVID-19."