Carry-on COVID-19: plane passengers unknowingly importing the virus
Jun 05, 2020
By Kate Aubusson
Australians flying home predominantly from Pakistan and India are the only confirmed COVID-19 cases recorded in NSW for more than a week.
Sixteen returning travellers who arrived in Sydney tested positive for the virus between May 25 and Wednesday June 3, data provided by NSW Health shows.
All 16 are undergoing mandatory 14-day hotel quarantining.
Nine cases were returning from Pakistan, two from India, and the other five were from Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tanzania and the UK, the travellers told contact tracers.
The state reported two additional cases among returning travellers on Thursday. Their countries of departure were not available at the time of publication.
It’s not clear where the travellers contracted the virus, with many spending time in several countries and airport hubs before arriving in Australia, NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said.
NSW has recorded two new COVID-19 cases from overseas travellers in quarantine, marking one week of no new cases from community transmission.
The higher number of COVID-19 cases among travellers returning from Pakistan was likely due to few flights arriving from other destinations in the past week, Dr Chant said. It was not an indicator that the virus was more prevalent among this group of passengers.
She said the countries linked to incoming cases will vary depending on flight schedules and routes.
“The data gives us a window into how COVID has progressively moved from places where we initially saw outbreaks [China, the US, UK and parts of Europe], and entered into a number of other countries,” Dr Chant said.
“It reflects the diversity of where Australians live and holiday and work overseas … where we provide support, including aid workers and non-government organisation workers.”
The federal government closed borders to all but Australian citizens and residents at 9pm on March 20.
Before the clampdown the majority of COVID-19 cases were people returning from the UK and US.
Under border rules, immediate family members of a citizen or permanent resident, and New Zealand citizens who live in Australia may also enter the country. Travellers who have compassionate or compelling reasons to travel to Australia can apply for an exemption.
Other exemptions include foreign nationals invited by the federal government to assist with the pandemic.
The number of overseas arrivals has plummeted since the border measures were introduced. Between March 21 and May 31 there were 178,312 travellers arriving - a 95.6 per cent drop compared to the same period in 2019, an Australian Border Force spokesperson said.
Since March 29, 103 returning travellers have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2). The UK accounted for the highest proportion of imported cases: 18 people accounting for 17.5 per cent of all cases in returning travellers.
There were 17 COVID-19 cases among people returning from Pakistan over the same period (16.5 per cent of all cases), and 17 cases were people who flew into Sydney after being aboard foreign cruise ships. Another 12 cases were from the US (11.7 per cent).
Roughly two-thirds of Australia’s COVID-19 cases were acquired overseas, including aboard cruise ships. In NSW, returning travellers account for more than half of all cases (1803 of 3106 cases).
All returning travellers are asked to complete a questionnaire upon arrival. People with symptoms are assessed by a health team and tested.
Dr Chant said the data showed mandatory hotel quarantining was proving to be an effective strategy to detect and isolate infectious people.
“That allows us to focus on detecting local transmission without any known source,” she said.
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