UPDATED: An unrestricted charter flight of 70 mine workers from the COVID-19 Tanami gold mine outbreak site carrying the highly-infectious Delta strain flew into Darwin on Friday afternoon with all passengers permitted to enter the community freely.
Flight records obtained by the NT Independent show the charter flight left the mine site at 11:30am on Friday and touched down in Darwin at 1:05pm.
It was initially believed the original COVID-19 carrier, the worker from Bendigo who had caught the virus in Brisbane, was on board that flight, but it appears that is unlikely although the government has not yet confirmed that.
The NT Government confirmed that as of Monday, two men on the Friday flight have so far tested positive for coronavirus, including one man in his 50s, who is the source of the exposure site list released by the Chief Minister yesterday, that included the “high risk” Buff Club and the “medium risk” Darwin Bunnings.
The other is the 64-year-old Palmerston man who does not appear to have attended public areas.
Chief health officer Dr Hugh Heggie said on Saturday – although it was not reported at the time – that passengers entered the community without restrictions and could have attended an unknown number of public places.
Health authorities are continuing to contact trace.
The original COVID-positive case was notified while he was at the Tanami mine site northwest of Alice Springs on Thursday that he had been at a high-risk exposure site at a Brisbane quarantine hotel and that he was required to self-isolate and get tested.
Sources told the NT Independent that the man complied with that order, but other workers who had been in contact with him were allowed to board the Darwin-bound flight before the test results were confirmed.
The NT Government said the positive test result was returned around midnight on Friday, roughly 11 hours after the two COVID-positive men and the other 70 passengers had entered the community unrestricted.
At a Saturday press conference, which was held about 12:15pm – after the NT Independent broke the positive result story – Chief Minister Michael Gunner said as soon as the test results came back from the Centre for Disease Control the government “put everything in place” and started contacting people.
However, Mr Gunner did not specifically mention the Friday flight that has now been confirmed by yesterday’s list of exposure sites.
“My advice is those 70 close contacts are on the mine site and are being moved to Howard Springs for isolation and testing,” he said on Saturday, a day after the unrestricted flight touched down and while health authorities were scrambling to track them down.
“Those 70 are part of the 754 currently on the mine site. All 754 are in isolation and being tested. We’ve chosen to move the 70 who were close contacts now.
“We believe it’s really important to provide clear, early information to Territorians. I’m aware of the dangers of misinformation.”
It remains unclear which 70 people he was referring to, because he did not mention the Friday flight which had already landed carrying 70 people.
The NT Independent understands the original case was brought to Darwin via CareFlight on Staurday, but this has still not been confirmed by the government.
Mr Gunner has not explained how long those on the flight were in the community before being taken to Howard Springs, but it appears to be more than 24 hours.
‘They may have been to the markets or other places’: CHO confirms mine employees entered Darwin community without restrictions on Friday
Mr Gunner said he was confident that 244 people from the mine site between the suspected infectious period of June 18 and June 24 believed to be in the NT – now understood to have increased to 259 – “were at their home addresses”.
However, at that same press conference on Saturday, Dr Heggie confirmed that while health authorities had the names of all the people who had left the mine, they would most likely have been mixing in the community on Friday.
“They may have been to the markets, or other places while they were here [in Darwin], and other people may have transferred on the charter flight, and they may have transferred and on-travelled onto somewhere else,” he said.
“This is significant in the sense of the time the person actually was infectious, and then the time the people actually left the site, and they may have been infected.
“That is yet to come. The information over the coming hours and days, we will share with you.”
He was not asked details about the Friday charter flight by the media present that day. The NT Independent is excluded from Gunner Government press conferences, which includes conferences about public health crises.
The government has officially declared seven COVID-positive cases related to the Tanami mine site, including two who are currently interstate. The NT Independent understands there are more currently in Howard Springs.
Mr Gunner’s list of exposure sites on Monday showed that at least one person from the mine – onboard the Friday flight – had been in the community while infectious.
It is expected more positive cases and more Darwin exposure sites will be revealed in the coming days.
‘NT facing biggest COVID threat yet’: Chief Minister following Health Minister’s fun run
Health Minister Natasha Fyles ran in the City2Surf fun-run on Sunday morning just hours before Mr Gunner made the initial two-day lockdown announcement at 1:30pm, which he said was necessary because, “the Northern Territory is now facing its biggest threat since the COVID crisis began”.
However, that event and many others, were allowed to proceed despite the government still tracking down the original 70 mine workers who had flown into the community on Friday, including some who had not yet been tested.
Mr Gunner identified a 64-year-old Palmerston man on Sunday who had tested positive and was on the flight from the mine on Friday. He said the man was interviewed on Saturday, and said he was developing symptoms and was tested and taken to quarantine along with his wife and adult daughter.
“There were 80 other people on the plane with the individual, they are part of the 244 I talked about last night,” Mr Gunner said on Sunday. “They are now deemed high risk contacts, all of them.”
He did not elaborate on how the number had grown to 80 and if he was referring to the Friday flight.
“They are … in the process of being contacted and transferred to the Centre for National Resilience [Howard Springs facility],” he said.
“Here in the Territory we do not have the luxury of waiting and seeing. If we wait, and it gets worse, it will be too hard to control. So we are taking extreme action right now to stop or slow [the] spread before coronavirus is let loose in the Territory.
“I would rather regret us going too hard, too early than too easy and risk it all.”
He did not explain why public events were allowed to continue on Saturday and Sunday after the government was aware of the unrestricted flight and the 70 people who entered the greater Darwin area from the COVID-19 mine site.
Editor’s note: The original story said the initially infected COVID-19 mine worker was on board the Friday flight. It does not appear he was, however the government is yet to confirm when and how he arrived at the Howard Springs facility in Darwin.