Victoria’s new digital contact tracing system broke down so badly that it stopped working days before the state went into lockdown last month.
The multimillion-dollar Customer Relationship Management digital system was introduced after severe criticism of Victoria’s slow manual data-entry procedures which exacerbated the state’s coronavirus response failures.
But cracks emerged almost immediately after the system went live in January as it began generating wrong contacts causing delays.
Victoria went into a snap five-day lockdown on February 12 following an outbreak from the Grand Hyatt, Melbourne (pictured). Inside sources say the lockdown was needed because problems with new digital contact tracing systems delayed contact tracing
The delays meant the state had to go into a five-day lockdown, internal sources say, although Victoria’s health department has publicly defended the system saying it was ‘crucial’ in shutting down the February outbreaks of the UK variant.
Difficulty in entering personal and medical data also led to wrong information being generated for contact tracers and duplicate names being issued, internal sources said.
Hundreds of text messages were wrongly sent to close contacts and those already known to be infected with coronavirus.
One man, blamed for spreading coronavirus at the Holiday Inn through using a nebuliser for asthma, got a text message telling him to quarantine as he had tested positive – three weeks after going into quarantine and nine days after testing positive.
Melbourne’s Smile Buffalo Thai in Black Rock (pictured) on December 21. The names of close contacts of a January cluster from this restaurant were accidentally generated in February
At the time of the lockdown, Premier Daniel Andrews (pictured) said it was needed as the UK variant was spreading too fast for contact tracers to keep up
The man was already in hospital when he got the text.
Days before Victoria went into the snap five-day lockdown on February 12, contact tracers simply stopped calling close contacts due to the problems, an internal source said.
The new system was optimistically touted when it went live in January after the failure of the central pen-and-paper system that had caused two-week delays before contacts were notified of exposure.
However an anonymous Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) source has told the Sunday Age that contact tracing stopped for several hours on February 8 when it was found that tracers had been calling people linked to an old cluster.
Workers at the Holiday Inn, Melbourne, on February 16 during the snap lockdown
Pictured: Smile Buffalo Thai restaurant in Blackrock, Melbourne – the epicentre of a January outbreak that continued generating contact tracing data in the new digital system in February
Instead of calling people exposed to active coronavirus outbreaks, the contact tracers were calling those linked to an old January outbreak at a Thai restaurant in Black Rock.
The DHHS source told the Age that Victoria was forced into the snap five-day lockdown because the new system broke down leaving contact tracers way behind their targets.
Tracers did not reach 44 per cent of close contacts from the Holiday Inn and Grand Hyatt clusters within the 48 hours required by national standards.
At the time, Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews said the lockdown was needed because the highly infectious UK virus mutation was spreading too fast for the contact tracers to catch up.
The digital system, made by US firm Salesforce, had other catastrophic problems including difficulty identifying the negative tests needed to release people from quarantine.
The system also took too long for people to upload lab reports during outbreaks, the DHHS source said.
The system, made by US firm Salesforce, uses a US dating format which puts the month before the day, confusing Australians who typically put the day first.
Pictured: Holiday Inn Melbourne Airport, epicentre of a February cluster. The DHHS said 99 per cent of close contacts were contacted within 48 hours thanks to the new digital system
Deakin University Chair in Epidemiology Professor Catherine Bennett told The Age that the new system should be scrapped if it couldn’t cope.
‘Pausing calls for a few hours really could be the difference between an infectious person being out and about and there being a whole extra band of potentially hundreds more people having to go into quarantine,’ she said.
The DHHS denied a ‘system-wide’ interruption of contact tracing on February 8 but confirmed there had been a problem.
A Skybus driver in Melbourne on February 16 during Victoria’s snap lockdown. Health authorities say they’re confident the new digital system is a vast improvement despite hiccups
More than 99 per cent of known contacts of a positive case at the Holiday Inn had been contacted within the required 48 hours thanks to the new system, made by US firm Salesforce, the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said the system was able to identify negative coronavirus tests and that it could deal with name duplication, which was normal where multiple test results are received.
Victoria’s contact-tracing system was vastly improved, according to Australian Medical Association Victorian president Julian Rait.
Mr Rait told The Age that the digital model had hiccups during its rollout but was ‘inherently good’.