Following an announcement by the Federal government to help fund the building of a quarantine facility in Victoria, UNSW academics are calling for governments to construct purpose-built COVID-19 quarantine centres in each state for returning travellers.

“Until we have purpose-built quarantine centres built in each capital city, I would urge the authorities in the meantime to develop national best practice across all states and territories,” UNSW epidemiologist Professor Mary-Louise McLaws says.

McLaws is an adviser to the World Health Organisation Infection Prevention and Control for COVID-19.

In addition to vaccinating all hotel quarantine staff and their households, she also called for identifying the best facilities for returned travellers, meaning hotels with superior air changes and openable windows. Guests should be placed on one side of the corridor with a vacant room in between, and all guests from a single room should be relocated as soon as one of their group tests positive.

However, hotels do not meet hospital standards for dealing with highly infectious diseases, according to McLaws.

“An average-size infectious ward must have at least 10 full clean air changes per hour per person and that ward must not act as a positive air pressure room when doors are open,” she said.

Therefore, a hotel room that does not meet the air change per hour per person requirement increases the chances of opportunistic aerosol spread.

The solution lies in purpose-built quarantine facilities that maximise ventilation while minimising risk of infection from returning travellers. McLaws’ idea for a dedicated quarantine facility is one where the buildings are all single-storey with natural airflow, and separate buildings for travellers who test positive to the virus. Moreover, the current hotel rooms should be equipped with air-conditioners that can meet 10 air changes per hour per person.

The quarantine facilities in Darwin’s Howard Springs are considered the ‘gold standard’ in COVID-19 quarantining of returned travellers. However, the precinct only houses a maximum of 2000 people per fortnight, making the capacity inadequate for the 36,000-plus Australians wanting to return home.

Making a case for building dedicated quarantine centres in each State, McLaws cited the high cost of lockdowns – as much as $1 billion each week in NSW and Victoria. Also, several outbreaks in the community have been traced to breaches in the hotel quarantine system. Victoria, she added, was in their fourth lockdown because of the failings of hotel quarantine in another state.

McLaws’ UNSW colleague Dr Ahmed WA Hammad is an expert on construction systems and methods in the Faculty of Arts, Design and Architecture. Observing that lack of time and high expense are not compelling reasons not to build dedicated quarantine facilities, he suggested that modular buildings, fabricated off-site away from the construction zone, would be the most effective way to build quarantine facilities that meet health and logistical requirements.

“Modular construction is safe, proven to be more sustainable, and is quicker to build than your traditional construction method.

“For quarantine facilities we’re looking at two options: adaptable facilities that are more permanent and can be used for some other purpose once the pandemic issue is resolved, or temporary quarantine facilities that can be built super-quickly and dismantled after the pandemic.

“These temporary quarantine facilities can even be made mobile so that they can be sent to various locations depending on need.”

Based on several factors such as quality, adaptability and availability of materials and resources, a modular building with 50 rooms could be ready in 3-10 weeks.

Dr Hammad also suggested that having centrally located facilities in each major city would be more effective than multiple facilities spread out. For instance, the proposed site for the quarantine hub in Victoria is close to Avalon Airport, ensuring effective monitoring and efficient use of security personnel.

While modular construction as well as economies of scale would reduce costs, Dr Hammad added that the structures should be adaptable to other uses after the pandemic.

“The sites need to be designed so that once the pandemic is over, the spaces can be reconfigured and adopted as learning spaces, social housing, hospitals, schools, libraries or even office space.”