An investigation has been launched into how a man in Perth hotel quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic ended up in an induced coma in intensive care despite his wife allegedly calling for a doctor nearly nine hours before he was admitted to hospital.
Ken Watson and his wife, Kathleen, arrived in Perth on a charter flight from Rome, after being stranded on the Costa Luminosa cruise ship. The New South Wales couple were placed into quarantine in the Crown Promenade in Perth.
Ken, 71, suffers from diabetes and had struggled with his health in Italy.
Their daughter Belle said Kathleen originally called for the on-site doctor around 9am on 1 April. Belle said around 3pm her mother called her for help, saying she had repeatedly asked for the doctor, but they never came. She told Belle she had fainted and Ken was rapidly deteriorating.
“His eyes were rolling into the back of his head … I saw that on FaceTime,” Belle Watson told Guardian Australia.
Belle, who was at home in NSW, said she tried to contact the doctor overseeing the hotel and eventually called for an ambulance.
A spokesperson for the St John Ambulance told Guardian Australia they were turned away.
Representatives from Crown Promenade did not respond to specific questions, saying they should be put to the WA health department.
Belle said she continued to call the hotel, the doctor, health hotlines and the police.
She said an ambulance did not take Kathleen and Ken to hospital until about nine hours after originally requesting medical help. St John Ambulance said after being turned away in the first instance, a second ambulance was called to the hotel around 5pm.
“I got a phone call, basically, ‘you need to speak to your father, we’re putting him in an induced coma, and we’re not quite sure how this is going to end up’,” Belle said.
Belle was told Ken could be in a coma for months, and there was a possibility he would not recover. Kathleen was also hospitalised but was released on Wednesday 8 April.
“It’s not fair and it’s not right. It’s not humane. They’re not animals, they’re not dogs, they haven’t committed a crime … it’s just like a nightmare movie,” Belle said.
A spokesperson for the state government confirmed it was investigating the situation.
“A Department of Health investigation is currently under way into an incident that occurred at Crown Promenade.
“Every effort is being put in place to ensure the safety and comfort of returned passengers in mandatory isolation in Western Australia.”
WA Health issued a statement saying they had requested changes to the rostering of health care personal.
“WA Health is investigating this incident as a priority. This includes reviewing the nursing and medical support for around 2,000 guests at seven hotels across Perth and almost 200 people on Rottnest Island to ensure they have the very best access to care.
“We understand that the Healthcare Australia doctor took responsibility for the patients, determining they could be cared for at the hotel.
“WA Health has subsequently requested that Healthcare Australia make changes to their rostered personnel as they were not meeting the expectations of the State.
“This is obviously an incredibly difficult and distressing situation for the family and our thoughts are with them.”
Healthcare Australia is a recruitment company that is currently providing medical staff for some WA Health operations.
Healthcare Australia declined to comment on individual cases, however, said they “conduct full investigations when incidents arise and take appropriate action.”
“Depending on the incidents we stand down relevant individuals until the investigation is completed … Healthcare Australia are following all the processes set out by WA Health making sure all the clinical health requirements are being met for all hotel guests.”
‘I had to beg and threaten to break out of the room’
Others in hotel quarantine across the country say they have also struggled to access adequate medical care.
Avital Sheffer and her husband, both in their 60s, had been visiting Mexico, but were flown back by their insurance company after he was shot in the leg in Mexico City and underwent emergency surgery. Stray bone shards remained in his leg and he was told he might need follow-up surgery once he returned to Australia.
But Sheffer said she had to call police to get a doctor for her husband after six days in a Sydney hotel.
“The insurance company organised an emergency evacuation from Mexico to get him home in the hope he would get urgent treatment and instead when we returned we were ushered to a panel of police and army officers,” Sheffer said. “A young doctor then interviewed my husband at Sydney airport and … said the obligation of the government is to provide medical attention and other basic needs. We were told when we got to the hotel my husband would be thoroughly examined and assessed.”
Sheffer said she and her husband were never given the option to apply for medical exemption from the hotel quarantine. She said she waited three days for someone at the hotel to bring her antiseptic for the wound and more bandages.
“I had to beg, and then threaten to break out of the room to receive some dressing materials for his extensive wounds, which I have to change myself,” she said.
A doctor never came so she called police and a doctor finally came on Monday, six days into their stay.
“We are not opposing the quarantine, we support it,” Sheffer said. “But the conditions are subhuman. We feel neglected, ill-treated and humiliated. If we get food it comes in tiny portions of inedible stuff. We are very modest eaters but these are not even kids’ portions. We are hungry.”
Travellers have reported varying experiences of their treatment around Australia. While some are able to order their own food, get fresh air and receive assistance from staff, others are not.
One woman told Guardian Australia she and her husband and their two children, aged one and four, arrived on Friday on an evacuation flight from Jordan, where they had been in military lockdown for three weeks with limited access to food or water.
When they arrived in Sydney they were put on a bus with other families and were at no point told where they were being taken.
“The accommodation is good,” she said. “I can’t fault it other than a lack of fresh air. But when we get through this my children won’t have been outside for five weeks. They beg me to go outside. They ask to run. I am emotionally shattered and not really able to to eat or sleep. The apartments are asking us to pay $4 for a litre of milk. Imagine price-gouging babies for their milk during this exercise. Aren’t the government giving them enough money?”
She said on Sunday night, after she had spent hours trying to get her baby to sleep, police knocked on the door after 10pm to conduct a roll call.
“Of course, our sons wake up and start screaming,” she said.
“Which is such a bizarre waste of time,” she said. “There are three police outside our door and according to friends, a pack of military outside.” When her husband complained that their baby had been woken, the police officer just laughed, she said.
Simon Kean, who is quarantined in a Sydney hotel, said he was frustrated by a public perception that those in the hotels were travellers who ignored the government’s advice to not go abroad.
“In my case this couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “I have been living in Los Angeles for the past six years and booked my flight several months ago as I need to return to Australia to help out my elderly parents. My mother was recently diagnosed with dementia so I made the decision to return home.”
He said he was denied a checkup from a doctor at the hotel even though he has high blood pressure and a minor cardiac issue. “I was told to call up the local Chemist Warehouse and order a blood pressure reader as the hotel does not have a doctor or access to equipment,” he said.
A pregnant woman told Guardian Australia she had been fighting for six days to receive healthcare and pregnancy-safe food at her Sydney hotel. “Unfortunately despite repeated requests, I am yet to see a doctor, and the food delivered to my door continues to go against NSW government food authority guidelines for pregnancy-safe food,” she said.
“I have spent all morning on the phone attempting to find out how to file an application for medical exemption [to quarantine at home instead] and have been handballed from department to department. No one has been able to provide information regarding how an application could be filed, no one has been prepared to provide their name stating privacy reasons, and no one has been prepared to put their response in writing.”
Numerous travellers said they had not been told exactly when their quarantine would end or how to go about leaving when it did.
• This story was amended on 8 April 2020 after further information was received from St John Ambulance about when Ken Watson was taken to hospital.