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The Australian Institute of Refrigeration, Air Conditioning and Heating (AIRAH) has backed the Victorian Government’s investigation into building a dedicated quarantine facility with a customised ventilation system.

AIRAH is urging all Australian governments to follow suit. 

The Australian hotel quarantine system has registered outbreaks in Adelaide in November 2020, in Brisbane in January, and in Perth and Melbourne in February. The latest outbreak at the Holiday Inn in Melbourne saw the UK strain of the virus spread into the community, prompting a five-day statewide lockdown. 

The role of airborne transmission in these outbreaks is now widely acknowledged, and the ventilation systems in quarantine hotels have come under more intense scrutiny. 

AIRAH Chief Executive, Tony Gleeson, M.AIRAH, said it must be acknowledged that these facilities are not fit for purpose. 

“It is difficult to believe that a country like Australia – with so many experts and resources at our disposal, and with the virus mostly under control – is resorting to a ‘make do’ solution of hotel quarantine,” Mr Gleeson said. 

“The Holiday Inn in Tullamarine was built in 1971. You must ask what kind of air-tightness standard it was built to, and wonder how badly the building fabric has deteriorated over the past 50 years. 

“No matter how much you review and adjust the ventilation systems in these facilities, they were simply not designed to accommodate patients with deadly, airborne viruses.” 

Commonplace air conditioning and ventilation design in high-rise hotel rooms consists of a fan coil unit over the entrance area or bathroom supplied with outdoor air introduced via openable windows, or ducted down the corridor. 

Air is exhausted from the bathroom, and because exhaust generally exceeds supply, this creates negative pressure in the room. 

Many factors, however, may cause air in the room to mix with air in a corridor when the door is opened, potentially spreading the virus. 

These include breeze from open windows or balconies in rooms, temperature differences  between rooms and the corridor, or ventilation systems that have not been commissioned or maintained properly. 

Brett Fairweather, M.AIRAH, a mechanical engineering consultant from It’s Engineered, said, “Any adaption of a hotel’s ventilation system to provide quarantine capabilities will be a compromise to some extent, and limitations are likely to be specific to each building.

“They were built as hotels, not quarantine facilities.” 

Mr Fairweather suggests that a new classification for quarantine facilities might fit well somewhere in the National Construction Code, ensuring the design and construction inputs achieve a facility that is fit for purpose. 

Mr Gleeson agreed, saying now is the time to act. 

The Institute is recommending that Australian governments urgently commission the design and construction of dedicated quarantine facilities, where airflows can be properly controlled, and those who are infected with the virus properly cared for. 

“Australia has been a world leader in its response to the virus so far,” Mr Gleeson said. 

“Let’s keep it that way, by building quarantine facilities that are also world-class, and guaranteeing the ongoing safety of our citizens.” 

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