A service provider linked to a growing coronavirus cluster in Canberra's disability community has spoken publicly for the first time, saying it was well prepared to respond to an outbreak and support its vulnerable clients.
Focus ACT chief executive Marco Xuereb is already bracing for future cases, saying it would be "very naive" to think it couldn't happen again.
He has also praised the ACT government's handling of the emergency, in particular its contentious decision not to immediately alert the broader disability community or the general public after positive cases were detected.
"We really appreciate the level of privacy they have provided to people living with a disability," he told The Canberra Times.
"People with a disability should enjoy the same dignity and privacy that everyone else in the community does."
The cluster which has sparked concern across Canberra's disability community has grown to 16 cases after one new infection was reported on Wednesday.
It now includes five people with a disability, 10 support workers - including at least two from NSW - and a tradesperson. It remains unclear how the outbreak started.
Mr Xuereb, whose Deakin-based organisation has more than 150 staff providing round-the-clock care to about 60 people living in independent accommodation across Canberra, confirmed there had been cases. He declined to say how many, for privacy reasons.
He said the individuals who had tested positive were being supported and monitored and were "mostly in good spirits".
ACT Health has not listed the homes as exposure sites, as is standard practice.
Mr Xuereb said the organisation leapt into action immediately after a staff member was deemed a close contact of a known infection not long after Canberra's first case was reported on August 12.
He said Focus ACT had some weeks ago stepped up precautions, including instructing staff to wear protective equipment, as rising case numbers in Sydney and regional NSW heightened the possibility of the virus spreading into the nation's capital.
"There was a bit of thinking ... we were expecting something to happen in the ACT sometime soon," he said.
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Mr Xuereb said the provider was already planning how it would respond to future outbreaks, which he believed were likely in Canberra over the "next few years".
He said with more than 200 people linked to the organisation, the chances of someone being exposed to the virus while out in the community was high.
"To think this is the last time this is going to happen would be a very naive," he said.
"This is going to be the first of many that we are going to experience over the next few years. Covid outbreaks are not going to stop when we get through this one."
Ensuring early detection and notification of cases, and using protective gear regardless of whether cases were circulating in the community were key to combatting future outbreaks, he said.
The vaccine rollout for people with a disability has been plagued by delays, with large numbers still waiting for a jab despite being a priority group.
More than a quarter of NDIS participants living in disability care homes in Canberra have yet to receive one dose - six months on from the start of the rollout.
Mr Xuereb would not comment on the vaccination status of the individuals who had tested positive, adding it was left to clients to decide if they wanted a jab.
"We don't own the people we support," he said. "It is really important that people are allowed to make their own choice - we are more than happy to support people with whatever choice they make."
While vaccinations will soon be a condition of employment for aged care workers, at this stage it is only "strongly recommended" for disability support workers.
Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith on Wednesday praised unnamed disability service providers for their response to the outbreak, saying their commitment to their staff and clients had been "outstanding".
Ms Stephen-Smith earlier this week defended the government's decision to delay alerting the public to the cluster, insisting its priority was to communicate with those directly involved and it wasn't "hiding information".
Meanwhile, Sharing Places in Pearce, which runs programs for people with a disability, was closed on Monday and Tuesday after being listed as a casual contact exposure site.
The Canberra Times understands that a disability support worker who later tested positive to COVID-19 briefly attended the centre on the morning of August 11, but did not transmit the virus.
The centre, which reopened on Wednesday, was shut after staff were ordered to get tested and isolate, in line with ACT Health rules for casual contacts.
Sharing Places did not respond to requests for comment.
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