The US tennis player Tennys Sandgren is bound for Melbourne after Tennis Australia reportedly intervened so he could board a charter flight despite testing positive for coronavirus.
In a series of tweets on Thursday, Australian time, Sandgren initially suggested he would not be able to board the flight for the Australian Open, writing “Covid positive over thanksgiving” and “Covid positive on Monday”.
Later, Sandgren, a quarter-finalist at last year’s open, added it appeared he would able to board the chartered flight before lauding the Tennis Australia chief executive, Craig Tiley, as a “wizard”.
“Wow I’m on the plane. Maybe I just held my breath too long,” he said in a tweet.
He then explained his first positive test was in November and he was now “totally recovered”. “I was sick in November, totally healthy now. There’s not a single documented case where I would be contagious at this point.”
The Australian Open suggested Victorian health authorities had given Sandgren the all-clear to fly.
The tournament’s official Twitter account said people who had recovered and were “non-infectious can continue to shed the virus for several months”.
“Victorian government public health experts assess each case based on additional detailed medical records to ensure they are not infectious before checking in to the charter flights,” the Australian Open said.
“Players and their teams are tested every day from their arrival in Australia, a much stricter process than for anyone else in hotel quarantine.”
Victorian government authorities and the tournament organisers have previously insisted those who come to Australia for the grand slam must record a negative test before departing their country on chartered flights. Tennis Australia has been contacted for comment.
A spokesperson for Covid-19 Quarantine Victoria said it was common among people who had tested positive and then recovered to “shed viral fragments for some time”, which could “trigger another positive result”.
“Any person who returns a positive test result has their medical and case history reviewed by a team of public health experts,” the spokesperson said. “Only those who are determined to be recovered and no longer infectious will be allowed to travel to Australia.”
The government unit reviewed Sandgren’s positive test and determined he had recovered but was still shedding viral particles. He was then cleared to travel.
Prof Nigel McMillan, the director of infectious diseases and immunology at Menzies Health Institute, told the Guardian that people shedding the virus long after they tested positive was “a well-known phenomenon”.
He said there were many documented cases of people who had recovered but still shed the virus in faeces or lung extracts even though “the virus has shown to be dead”.
While he did not comment on the decision to allow Sandgren to board the flight, McMillan described the tournament’s explanation as “logical and plausible”. Given Sandgren had tested positive in November there was no reason to think he was infectious “unless he has some sort of serious immune deficiency”.
The confusion over Sandgren’s Covid status came after the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, defended the “extraordinary steps” the state was taking to hold this year’s Australian Open, arguing Melbourne could lose the tennis grand slam forever if it does not go ahead next month.
Andrews told reporters earlier on Thursday: “We can’t rule out that somebody, one of the players or team members, has got this virus. But just focus … on what not having this event this year may well mean.”
The first group of about 1,200 players and staff were due to land in Melbourne on Thursday for the tournament, which is scheduled to start on 8 February, with warm-up events beginning on 31 January.
Andrews said the event was only going ahead because the state’s public health advice had confirmed that it could be held safely.
“If the Australian Open doesn’t happen in Melbourne it will happen somewhere else,” he said. “It will happen in Japan, it will happen in China, it will happen in Singapore. And the real risk then is it doesn’t come back.”
The Victorian premier said the event underpinned tens of thousands of jobs and Victorian taxpayers had forked out about $1.5bn over 10 years to build the tennis precinct at Melbourne Park.
“On that basis, it is worth going to these extraordinary steps to make sure it can happen, but in a safe way,” he said.
Players and staff will be subject to 14-day mandatory hotel quarantine at three sites paid for by Tennis Australia. The proposed bubble is separate to the existing quarantine program for other international arrivals.
Competitors will only be allowed to leave their rooms for five hours a day – after a second-day negative test – to attend quarantine training venues as part of the Australian Open bubble. Other staff will be forced to remain in their rooms for the entire 14 days.
Players and staff must be tested 72 hours before boarding a flight to Melbourne, will be tested each day in hotel quarantine, and anyone who is found to have the virus will be moved to a separate quarantine facility.
While some experts have questioned the decision to hold the event at all, the Deakin University chair of epidemiology, Catherine Bennett, told Guardian Australia on Tuesday she was broadly supportive of the measures the government had put in place to manage the event.
However, the timing is awkward for officials given the federal government announced only last week it would reduce by 50% the number of international passengers allowed into New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. The decision was made in response to new variants of the virus emerging overseas.
Many Australians have struggled to make it back home during the pandemic, often being bumped off the scarce and expensive flights that have been available.
The decision to press ahead with the Australia Open infuriated many stranded Australians stuck abroad and unable to get flights home due to a lack of quarantine places.
In one post to the Aussie’s Abandoned Abroad group, Mark Acton said he and his wife had been trying to return to Australia before his daughter gives birth to twins.
The pair have repeatedly had flights – one of which cost $6,000 – cancelled and have described their situation as “ludicrous”. “Luckily 1,200 tennis players and staff flying in for the Oz Open!!” he wrote.
Another user posted a link to a news article about Victoria’s quarantine plans for the tournament, saying only: “I have no words … (Or at least none I’d be willing to post here).”
Others wondered how it was that Tennis Australia was able to manage to charter flights to bring players and staff to Melbourne from all over the world for quarantine when the federal government could not.
“Tennis Australia could manage to organise 15 charter flights in such a short time from around the world but the Aust Govt can’t? Mind boggling! Or it’s about money?” one person wrote.
Tennis Australia said last week tickets were being sold to 35% of Melbourne Park’s capacity, with the precinct split into three zones. The capacity could be altered, the sporting body added.