New South Wales is currently on high alert amid a new cluster that’s seen Sydney’s coronavirus outbreak balloon significantly.
That outbreak has now spread to Victoria, this week ending its streak of 61 days without community transmission.
And while Australia has largely been praised for its handling of the virus, with minimal cases compared to countries like the UK and the US, it could also be a reason why we’re more susceptible to “explosive outbreaks”.
That’s the view of an infectious diseases expert, who believes Sydney could be on the verge of an explosive outbreak for two big reasons.
Speaking to news.com.au, the Head of Monash University’s Epidemiological Modelling Unit Associate Professor James Trauer says there are two factors which makes the population of NSW and Australia more vulnerable.
“The number one thing that makes us susceptible to the virus taking off again is that we haven’t had transmission, we haven’t had extensive vaccination,” he says.
“We have a susceptible population and we’ve always got a strong potential for explosive or rapid outbreaks.”
Our relatively normal levels of social interaction is another factor which places us at a strong risk of further clusters. And although Greater Sydney is now under a five-person restriction on household gatherings, a broad lockdown may also be necessary, Prof Trauer says.
‘LESSONS FROM VICTORIA’
Based in Victoria, the practising physician warns that NSW should learn from the mistakes made during Victoria’s second wave by implementing a “broad lockdown” sooner.
“I’m not quite sure how ‘hard’ it would need to be but NSW should think about locking down earlier than what Victoria did,” he says.
“Stage 3 was pretty restrictive but that to me clearly wasn’t enough and it wasn’t until we changed over to stage 4 that we began to see an improvement, and when we started mandating face masks.”
After reporting daily figures in the hundreds in July, the Victorian Government moved to stage 4 restrictions on August 2. This placed the state in one of the toughest lockdowns in the world and meant Victorians were only able to leave their homes for four essential reasons – work or study, exercise, shopping for supplies and medical care and caregiving. The new restrictions also introduced rules like a curfew between 8pm and 5am, mandated face masks, a 5km travel restriction and shuttering of non-essential businesses.
Fellow physician and broadcaster Dr Norman Swan has also been very vocal of the need for an immediate lockdown across Greater Sydney.
Appearing on ABC on Wednesday, he criticised the state government for its current handling of the virus which he thinks will put the state at risk of a “second wave”.
“The precautionary principle is act fast, act early, beg for forgiveness later because there (aren’t any) prizes for being late to this party,” he said.
“It’s five days after Christmas, one incubation period after Christmas, so you’d expect a spike round about now, and that’s a springboard for New Year’s Eve as well.”
MASKING THE ISSUE
When it comes to stopping the spread, Prof Trauer says mandating face masks could also have a “appreciable affect”. This is despite current directives from NSW Health which “highly recommends” people to wear them if 1.5m of physical distancing cannot be maintained.
“If we are trying to eliminate the virus then that’s just one of the easiest things to do really,” he says.
“I just don’t understand that given that this is now becoming a major issue (for example, it’s affecting New Year’s celebrations) then why you wouldn’t make them mandatory?
“People criticise the evidence of face masks and debate if they’re really effective or not but if they’re recommending them then they believe there’s evidence for them. And if they believe there’s evidence for them, then why aren’t they mandating them?”
‘YET TO NIP IT IN THE BUD’
With millions set to nervously monitor case numbers over the next few days, the good news is that Prof Trauer says there’s isn’t cause for panic yet. Luckily the virus is easier to control in summer and it’s normal for the case figures to “bounce” around, he says.
He did, however, originally predict cases from the Avalon cluster in Sydney’s northern beaches would taper off by the New Year and says the additional Croydon cluster is “worrying”.
“I’m pretty concerned that things could continue to take off. I hadn’t really anticipated there’d be this level of cases,” he says.
“Although we’re not seeing a clear trend of cases going up, we haven’t nipped this cluster in the bud rapidly.”