I packed Thursday morning before work. My two good friends (my double D’s) took me away for my soon 50th birthday next month. We went to Port Douglas in far north Queensland where it’s sunny and warm and also to our surprise there was an event called Carnivale going on.
We were in the warmth. We were on holidays. We were together. We were ready for anything. We talked, we cried, we ate. We danced, we laughed, we slept. We walked, we wrote, we shopped. We healed our hearts, asked questions of life, and shared our honest views of each other’s world. I wish everyone a trio like ours.
On our second to the last day, we went stand up paddle boarding on the Mossman Gorge. It was beautiful and peaceful. After having a relaxing for hours on the river, we came back to a text message from my boss telling me I needed to go get a COVID test. We turned on the news. A person who had recently been in South Australia hotel quarantine tested positive for COVID and had been shopping at the shopping centre I work at on Thursday evening. I worked that evening, and it was possible he could have been one of my customers. The announcement was anyone who had been to Highpoint Shopping Centre on Thursday 20 May needed to get tested immediately and go home until further notice, and here I am in Queensland.
Panic started to squirm its way into our lovely sunny holiday. We were due to fly out in almost 24 hours. This was a problem. I couldn’t safely and honestly answer the questions to allow me to get on my flight. We got onto the Queensland government website, and I filled out the contact tracing questionnaire sheet then rang the COVID hotline. The advice was to stay in our accommodation and get tested in the morning. My closest testing site was a 20 min taxi drive away that opened at 8.30 am the following day. We had to sit tight. The three of us gathered on the couch over cheese and crackers. We retraced our steps from the weekend. The fresh fruit and veg market in Cairns on FRIDAY, Shopping, dancing at the Court House restaurant, watching the fireworks, A cup of tea at a second-hand book shop. SATURDAY: Grocery store, beach walk, Mosh pit at the Siderbait concert, more dancing to live music at the Court House–me the serial hugger making friends on the dancefloor and ‘front row’ bestie at the concert.
Not to mention the few trips to the toilets. SUNDAY: Meandering up and down the stalls at the Sunday market, handing out by the pool the countless people we spoke to over the weekend. We had to laugh at our possible headline:
“Three mothers from Melbourne, Super Spreaders in the mosh pit at Spiderbait concert Saturday night.”
Phone calls were starting to be made to loved ones at home about the possibility that we may need to be in quarantine in Queensland for the next fourteen days. Work. Kids. Life. Potentially all about to be put on hold. We laughed because if we didn’t, the seriousness of it would have made us cry.
The thing that nobody knew the answer to is what shops did this person visit? There could have easily been 10,000 people in and out of Highpoint shopping centre that day. Did I serve him? If so, I rang him up behind the Perspex barriers that the first round of COVID brought with it. I could be safe. What if I had answered his question in the aisle? Maybe not safe. What if our conversation had turned to laughter and book recommendations to each other? Not safe. There were just too many unknowns at this stage. It all came down to 1) getting tested for COVID and waiting for the results 2) the centre management tracing his exact whereabouts through CCTV. Both of these things were going to take some time.
I slept okay but was on the phone early calling the Mossman Multipurpose Health Services precisely at 8.30 am when they opened only to find out that they won’t be opening the testing site today because they were understaffed. My only option now was an hour’s drive to Cairns and an hours drive back. Everyone I spoke to was very clear about getting tested asap and stay inside my accommodation. I also knew that Queensland Health would be contacting me this morning because of the contact tracing form I had filled out last night. We just needed to do more waiting.
A nurse from QLD health rang me to ask questions about my whereabouts at the COVID hotspot site, aka Highpoint shopping centre. After she got all the information she needed, I waited for her to ring me back. She was sweet, empathic and understanding of our situation. I had been in a recent COVID hotspot and possibly infected not just my two friends but half of Carnivale, which was full of people who came from somewhere else just for the weekend. The nurse rang back after instructions from Brisbane. The Cairns Police Dept would come and pick me up from Port Douglas and deliver me to Hotel Quarantine, where I would be isolated and tested in my hotel room, where at this stage could be my new home for the next fourteen days.
“What about my friends?” I asked.
“At this stage, we are only interested in you as you were the one at the hotspot.”
I hung up, told the girls and started packing. My last day in paradise was spent in my pyjamas, sitting on the tiled floor with my phone plugged, answering phone calls and questions from strangers who were all consulting with each other, not knowing what to do in this bizarre situation. Even my head was struggling to understand the severity of all that was happening. The only thing I knew for sure is that I was spending the night in hotel quarantine until the Queensland government knew I was not a risk to their state. Heavy-hearted, I called Jet Star and cancelled my flight to Melbourne that was leaving in a few hours. But I was happy my friends were able to make it home as per usual.
The driver rang my mobile to let me know he was downstairs. My friends walked me down. We said our goodbyes, not knowing what the next few hours, days or even weeks might look like, but they were safe to catch the flight back to Melbourne. We set out on the hour’s drive to Cairns. I took this time to finally send some messages to family and friends who were expecting me to be back in Melbourne tonight.
My driver was a lively, chatty guy who owned a tour guide business that was dormant. He has a fleet of busses he can’t use, let alone can’t sell. Working for the Cairns police has been a lifeline for him. I talked about his splitting his time between Hong Kong and Australia. Hong Kong is where his wife lives, separated not just by oceans but this world pandemic like so many others. Too many business and people have had to reinvent themselves. I’ve got friends who worked for Qantas Airlines who are now working in hotel quarantine. It’s been a long hard few years.
When we were ten minutes away, my driver called the hotel to let them know. The hotel worker then shared with a lady who had been in quarantine only for a few days, tested positive for COVID and is about to be taken to the hospital via ambulance. As we get closer, the ambulance was pulling away. Will I breathe the same air? How safe is this place for me? The original guy ended up catching COVID on his last day in hotel quarantine in South Australia. His symptoms didn’t show up until yesterday, hence why everyone is scrambling now.
The ambulance lights hypnotised me as we pulled up into the parking spot where they just were. My attention then turned to the military guy who stood out front of the hotel and the six masked up officers I could see standing upright inside, all social distancing wearing bulletproof vests. It was an intimidating sight.
They had me wait in the van for about 5-7 mins before I was allowed to get out. I watched a lady walk past the front of the hotel with a box of wine. The military guy came out to make sure she didn’t get too close, but then she started talking to him. Maybe it was wine for someone inside quarantine? While I was trying to follow this wine box to its conclusion, it was my turn to go in.
I stepped out of the van, grabbed my bags and followed my driver inside. Now, as I write this, I can’t remember saying goodbye to the driver. I just found myself standing there wishing I had the guts to pull out my phone from my pocket and record this. Constable So and So stood in front of me very serious and asked me to say my name and date of birth out loud. I assumed he had some camera on his person. I felt like I was being recorded. He read from a laminated card. He told me I was here for fourteen days and that under no circumstances was I to open the door to my room unless they told me to. “From time to time, the alarms go off. You are still not allowed to open your door. If it is serious, we will come and get you. The only time you are allowed out of your room is if there is a fire in your room. Do you understand?” I nodded and said yes. He then pointed me to another officer. This officer gave me a stack of paperwork. I needed to fill out the top three sheets then slip them under the door to my hotel room ASAP for my COVID test. As he handed everything to me, I realised this was the first COVID test that I will take. I’ve taken my son several times, but this will be my first brain poke.
I grabbed my paperwork, and he introduced me to another officer. This officer towered over me, so tall that I just had to comment. I guessed 6″ 6 and was right. We got into the lift together. I was asked to social distance as much as possible and to not touch anything. It was a small lift that only 4 or 6 people could squeeze into in standard times. I complied. We reached our floor, and I followed him to my room. I noticed he was carrying a yellow laminated paper with my name written on it in black marker. I saw the same signs on some of the doors we passed, others here in quarantine. He struggles with the key but eventually let me in and kept the key. “There is a phone near the bed if you need anything”, the officer said, and I said thanks. As the door shut behind me, I could hear him sticking my yellow laminated sign to my door. I was officially in hotel quarantine.
The room was freezing. I put my bags down and looked for the air conditioner switch on the wall. I couldn’t turn it down, so I turned it off. Then I opened my bag and found my coat that I thought I would only need to travel back to Melbourne. I pulled out my phone and did that video, showing people my room and the surprisingly big balcony. I knew about hotel quarantine’s lack of fresh air in Melbourne, and here I had a balcony. I didn’t feel like a prisoner, but I didn’t know what to do either. So I turned on the TV and saw I had lots of movies at my disposal. I called the front desk to ask if I needed to pay for the film. They told me they were free. With my coat on, I crawled into bed and propped myself up on some pillows.
I had no idea who was in this room before me and who cleaned this room. Was it done correctly? I had to trust that it was. The guy in South Australia who started all of this for me caught COVID in hotel quarantine. I pushed the decorative pillow away as it didn’t look like you could put that in the washing machine, laid my head back and searched for a movie to start.
Shortly after I started the movie, I had knocked on the door. I got confused. Was I not supposed to open my door? The TV was up loud. I couldn’t figure out how to turn it down, and then it wouldn’t turn off. In a bit of a panic, I went to the door and said hello? Then I said wait and scrambled for my mask. I opened the door to see two lovely nurses dressed head to toe in PPE. They were here to give me my COVID test. They wanted me to stay in the room with my back up against the door, ensuring I stayed inside my room and stay side to them while they did the test, and they were safe from me breathing on them. But the way they were telling me what to do was confusing, and at one stage, I ended up turned around with both hands on my front door. Laughter emerged as it looked like I was about to get frisked. They stuck a swab in my mouth, tickled the back of my throat, then stuck the same swab deep enough in my nose to make me almost cough sneeze, all while my movie was blaring from the TV.
I went back to the tv to try then figure it out. I was able to stop the movie. The room was still cold, and I realised how hungry I was. My beautiful friends sent me with most of the food from our apartment: I had a dish of fresh veggies cooked in oil and garlic, a loaf of bread, a bottle of olive oil, a box of salt, a few squares of chocolate, three limes, a passionfruit and an avocado. I grabbed out the cooked veggies, got back under the covers and ate. By now, it was around 5.30 pm. My friends should just be arriving at the airport.
I couldn’t figure out how to start the movie, so I started another movie when my phone rang from a Queensland number.
“Hi, this is Andrew from Tropical Public Health Services. They have reviewed the CCTV footage of Highpoint. The guy was never near your bookshop. You are free to go right now. You can stay the night in the room if you want, or you can try to catch your flight to Melbourne.”
“What? Wow. The flight I cancelled?”
I got off the phone with him rang the airline. Having no luck on the phone, I texted my friends at the airport and told them I was cleared and to try to get me back on the flight. I called the front desk to ask how long it would take a taxi to get here and how far away from the airport was I? A 5 mins wait for a cab and a 10 min ride to the airport. This just might work.
In 12 mins, my friends got me back on the flight. Andrew at the QLD Government cleared me to the hotel police, and I stood bags in hand waiting for my police escort down to the lobby.
I met my friends at the gate with 10 mins to spare before we boarded our flight. I crawled into bed just after midnight, my head still spinning from the days’ events.
Currently in Victoria, we are in our fourth COVID lockdown. I am home safe with my kids on day two of a “snap seven-day lockdown’ statewide.