School reunion cluster grows to 19, as SA adjusts to life after COVID-zero

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Forty years after graduating and four days after South Australia’s borders reopened, Adelaide’s Henley High School Class of 1981 gathered to celebrate.

Theatre Bugs managing director Michael Eustice tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday after his high school reunion on Saturday night.

But unknown to the 47 reunion attendees at Theatre Bugs in Norwood on Saturday night, including former SA premier Jay Weatherill, COVID-19 had joined the party.

Michael Eustice, managing director of the Theatre Bugs performing arts school, was one of the first cases reported on Wednesday. On Thursday night, he said “at this stage” 19 of the group had tested positive.

A fellow old scholar called Mr Eustice at 8am on Tuesday to share the bad news. Two hours later, his own infection was confirmed.

“We were all double vaccinated and at this stage no one is seriously ill,” Mr Eustice said. “For me, it feels just like a nasty cold.

“The reunion had been in the planning for most of 2021 but we didn’t know whether it would be able to go ahead for some time.”

A decade had passed since the last reunion and this year, six people flew in from four states, he said.

The majority of party attendees have been transferred to medi-hotels and Mr Eustice is awaiting confirmation this will be for 14 days. His wife has tested negative.

But Mr Eustice is concerned for his fellow COVID-positive friends and worried he may have “unknowingly made someone else sick”, while his administrative team at Theatre Bugs are considered close contacts, forcing the closure of the office and cancellation of some classes.

The emergence of the cluster presents a challenge for a state that maintained zero or close to zero cases in the community for most of the pandemic, but opened its borders on November 23.

Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier, who reported 16 new cases linked to the Norwood cluster on Thursday, said they were not unexpected. She anticipated they were the Delta variant.

“We can make an assumption that it is probably [linked to] somebody from interstate but because we’ve had our borders open since the 23rd, it could be somebody locally,” she said.

SA Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier reported 18 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday including 16 linked to the Norwood cluster.Credit:Getty

Professor Spurrier noted the reunion had fewer than 150 guests and was within the rules. She told residents the situation was a “transitional phase” and requires a “bit of a mind shift for all of us” as the state moves from an elimination strategy to one of suppression.

“In the past, we would have put huge numbers of people into quarantine and we would have listed public exposure sites,” she said. “But we are in a different phase now that we’ve got a high number of people vaccinated.”

As of 9am Thursday, 210 close contacts were in quarantine, however that number was likely to rise.

Professor Spurrier said there may be “some lag” between when a positive case tells their close contacts and when those people are contacted by SA Health. The state government is working to speed up that process, including sending text messages ahead of a phone call.

Following the Saturday night reunion, Mr Weatherill – who had travelled from Western Australia – met with SA Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas.

Mr Weatherill – who quit as leader after the March 2018 election – is chief executive of Thrive by Five, an early childhood development initiative within Nicola and Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest’s Minderoo Foundation.

Mr Malinauskas was tested on Wednesday after hearing Mr Weatherill was positive. On Thursday, he said he was “happy to report” his test result was negative.

“While I’m relieved by this news, my thoughts are with those South Australians who have now got COVID,” he said. “Now that the virus is in SA, it is more important than ever people get vaccinated.”

South Australia’s Parliament was adjourned on Thursday until 2pm and all MPs and staff at Parliament House on November 30 or December 1 were advised to avoid in-person meetings.

Professor Spurrier declined to say how many parliamentarians had been identified as close contacts but said the “disease was a real leveller” and “anybody can be affected”.

SA Governor Frances Adamson, who met with Mr Weatherill on Sunday, is a close contact. She has returned a negative result but will isolate for as long as advised by SA Health, Government House said.

A further two cases were reported in South Australia on Thursday in interstate travellers, not linked to the event. SA Health said of the 18 new infections, eight cases were men aged between 30 and 60 and 10 were women aged in their 50s.

Premier Steven Marshall said cases were “inevitable” when borders reopened.

“We are now working through getting people into quarantine as quickly as possible and making sure that the rest of us can continue with our normal lives,” he said.

Mr Marshall had his COVID-19 booster shot on Wednesday. He said nine in every 10 people aged over 12 in the state have had at least their first dose and urged everyone else to get vaccinated.

Due to the emergence of the Omicron variant, with NSW Health reporting the state’s eighth case on Thursday, every traveller from NSW will now be tested on arrival in South Australia. The state has also returned to 14-day quarantine for all international arrivals instead of seven.

“We’ll be monitoring the situation, particularly in NSW, extraordinarily carefully,” Mr Marshall said.

Professor Spurrier said SA Pathology would conduct whole genome sequencing on the new cases.

“Across Australia, we are looking for the Omicron variant as we learn more about it,” she said. “We’re expecting to have more information over coming weeks … this pandemic has thrown a lot of curveballs and we just want to make sure that we’re in front of that.”

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