A leading epidemiologist has said he is “more concerned” at this point about the new outbreak in Victoria than the current cases in NSW.
Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases expert at the Australian National University, said it was currently only a “presumption” that the three cases announced yesterday in the state caught coronavirus by way of a returned NSW traveller.
Until genomic sequencing took place that definitively connected the NSW outbreak to Victoria there was the possibility that COVID-19 had re-emerged from another source and the three were mystery cases.
“Mystery cases worry me the most,” he told news.com.au. “For every one mystery case, there is another person you haven’t found yet.”
Prof Collignon also said the border closures were an over-reaction to the new cases. But he was optimistic Victorian health officials could jump on the outbreak – which ended 61 days of no community transmission – because its strategy now more closely matched that of NSW.
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Victoria has reported eight new cases of COVID-19 over the last 48 hours, three on Wednesday and five on Thursday.
The first three cases were all linked to a Thai restaurant in the bayside suburb of Black Rock where a NSW returned traveller had eaten with one of the trio. The NSW person has not yet had their COVID-19 test returned.
Of the three women infected, one had no connection to the other two aside from dining at the Smile Buffalo restaurant.
Victoria’s commander of COVID-19 response Jeroen Weimar said the two groups — the case that dined with the NSW returned traveller, and the family duo — had eaten at separate tables and had no direct link. But they shared the same space for about an hour.
“It highlights the highly infectious nature of the virus,” he said.
“Which is that two groups of people entirely unconnected with each other with no direct knowledge of each other in that particular cafe intersected with each other over a time window of about an hour and, it would appear, there has been a transmission of the virus.”
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MORE WORRIED ABOUT MELBOURNE THAN SYDNEY
Prof Collignon said until those links could all be pinned down, there was a possibility the Victoria outbreak may have come from somewhere other than NSW.
“In some ways, I’m a little more concerned by the cases in Melbourne than Sydney,” he said.
“That it’s from NSW is a presumption at the moment and that’s why we need genomic testing given there’s been restrictions in NSW for quite a while, as well as between Sydney and Victoria and that the virus is not that widespread among people in Sydney.”
He added, “It’s a worry none of these women have been to Sydney in the last two to three weeks. If it isn’t related to Sydney then how did it get here?”
Prof Collignon stressed that if a genomic link was found to Sydney it would be a relief as it would provide a clear link for the virus’ entry into the state.
VICTORIAN COVID-19 SYSTEM HAS IMPROVED
He added that Victorians shouldn’t “overly panic”, due to major improvements in the state’s capacity to deal with an outbreak.
Victoria’s previous contact tracing was lambasted in a parliamentary inquiry just weeks ago.
Before August, contact tracers would often manually enter data into a system that “was not fit to deal with any escalation and led to significant errors”, the inquiry report stated.
“This failure cost lives and was unable to be rectified without strict lockdown measures throughout the state.”
“The criticism at the time of the contact tracing was fair,” said Prof Collignon.
“The system wasn’t good and they were less open about venues where people may have picked up infections.”
He added the failures were compounded by the previous outbreak occurring in winter which aided the spread.
“As far as I can tell Victoria is very open now, which is the NSW approach,” he said. “My impression is the system is better than it was six months ago.”
Indeed, Victoria has been quick to list venues where people with COVID-19 had visited.
HARD BORDERS, LOCKDOWNS ‘PREPOSTEROUS’
Prof Collignon said that it was key to understand the cause of the infection in Sydney’s emerging Croydon cluster – be that from the Avalon outbreak, hotel quarantine or from workers transporting COVID-19 patients.
“The good news is that in the vast majority of NSW’s cases those links have been established,” he said.
“It’s not as if we have 20 cases that are a mystery all over Sydney – if there was I would be quiet concerned.”
But the swiftness to close state borders and lock down entire cities over just a few cases was “preposterous”, he said.
Earlier today, South Australia closed its borders to NSW followed by Victoria later in the afternoon. Western Australia will close its borders to Victoria.
Acting Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan said it “was not an easy choice to make” to closer the border from midnight on Friday.
It will mean people from places like Dubbo, Byron Bay and Wagga Wagga will be shut-out from Melbourne despite no cases in or anywhere even near those areas.
“In NSW they had 200 cases in during winter outbreaks and uncontrolled spread and it was got under control without locking people down at home,” said Prof Collignon.
Localised restrictions were preferable to one-size-fits-all diktats and hard borders.
“It’s would be quite preposterous, for instance, to have the same restrictions in Avalon and Cabramatta (in Sydney’s south west, where there are no current cases).”
“We could have very widespread community transmission,” infectious disease expert at UNSW’s Kirby Institute Professor Raina MacIntyre said.
There were concerns people celebrating New Year’s parties in the city could pass the virus to one another.
“It is already the biggest outbreak in NSW and it’s at the worst possible time for it to happen as we have three super spreading events roughly within a week of each other – we’ve got Christmas, New Year’s and now the cricket just adding fuel to fire,” she told news.com.au.
Sydney may only know in mid-January if it managed to get through New Year without any significant outbreak.
However, Prof Collignon said the relatively low number of cases in Sydney and that most of these had been contact traced meant harsh measures were unnecessary at this stage.
“Some states seem to have a zero-risk approach,” he said.
“We need to make the risk of transmission as low as we can but continuing lockdowns are not sustainable if they are to continue until we all get a vaccine, which could be next October.”
He added, “The NSW approach seems to be the reasonable approach.”