CMO moves to ease COVID-19 fears as Victorian cases continue to spike

Matt Woodley

23/06/2020 5:13:31 PM

Professor Brendan Murphy said it is too early to declare outbreaks in Victoria a second wave, adding he has ‘great confidence’ in the state’s ability to respond.

Map of Australia
Some states have indicated they will monitor the situation in Victoria as they consider further easing of restrictions, including reopening borders.

The rise in cases has forced state authorities to shelve the scheduled easing of some restrictions, led to long queues at drive-thru testing clinics, and caused angst in other parts of Australia where the virus appears to have been all but eliminated.
Tuesday 23 June marks the seventh consecutive day that Victoria has recorded double-digit growth in new cases, with the spike propelling Australia’s overall daily number to its highest level in more than six weeks.
While Victoria’s active cases have gone from 51 to 131 in the space of a week to reach their highest point in more than two months, the rest of Australia appears to have the situation under control. Active cases in NSW have only increased by 22 in same period, and they have fallen or remained at zero in every other state and territory.
However, despite the growing concern, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said it is still too early to determine whether Victoria’s surge represents a second wave.
‘If this outbreak escalated and we had several hundred cases, that would be the sort of situation where I would be extremely concerned,’ he said.
‘But there is no official definition of a second wave; it’s a concept where the outbreak is such that you don’t think the public health measures can easily control it in the short term.
‘At the moment, I have great confidence in the Victorian response. They are responding very effectively and we need to watch things over the next few days to see how it happens.’
Professor Murphy also said the difference in figures between NSW and Victoria is somewhat due to ‘luck’, but that the former has been better at bringing community transmission under control by using measures such as pop-up clinics in hotspots.
According to the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), there are at least 131 active cases in the state, 14 of which remain under investigation by contact-tracers.
Victorian Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton told reporters that authorities are closely monitoring 1000 close contacts linked to the cases, and he predicted high numbers of confirmed daily infection will continue into the week.
‘We always see cases that reflect transmission that was happening a week or two weeks ago,’ he said.
‘So even though we’re stepping up very early, the kind of actions that we know should mitigate the risk, we’ll probably see an increase in cases or at least we’ll see steady numbers for some days to come before hopefully we can turn it around.’
Community transmission in Victoria has risen by 30 cases in the past three days, the largest increase since the peak of the pandemic in April, and Premier Daniel Andrews said authorities are certain there has been ‘significant community transmission’ among the cases still under investigation.
South Australia has sent a number of experts to help with Victoria’s contact-tracing efforts, with the team expected to spend three weeks assisting health officials.
The current situation means that while most of Australia prepares to move into the third stage of eased restrictions by mid-July, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt and Premier Andrews are warning restrictions could be again tightened in Victoria.
The planned easing of patron limits has been already postponed, while the number of visitors allowed in houses has been reduced back to five after it was revealed more than half of the state’s new cases were linked to families not observing social distancing during gatherings.
Professor James McCaw, a member of the national health advisory committee for coronavirus, also told ABC’s 7.30 studies show many Australians are no longer taking precautions against the virus.
‘We’ve been conducting surveys with the Government over the last many months which indicate that somewhere around three quarters of the population are starting to no longer realise that they need to be aware of the risks, and that’s a cause for concern,’ he said.
Professor McCaw’s warning and the threat of increased restrictions were taken a step further by Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely, who told The Age that Victoria’s current lockdown measures only have a 10% chance of eliminating the virus due to the number of community cases.
Professor Blakely said a hard lockdown lasting up to eight weeks would be the only way to stop the coronavirus from spreading further.
‘The discussion that should be happening behind closed doors – and it’s a really unpleasant one – is whether there is a strong case for Victoria to go back into lockdown,’ he said.
‘Then all of Australia will have eliminated the virus, or be close to eliminating it, and we can go back to normal life. Otherwise this will happen again and again.’
Almost 25,000 COVID-19 tests have been carried out in Victoria over the past 48 hours, and Premier Andrews has said an ‘army’ of officials will begin door-knocking homes in the local government areas where outbreaks have occurred to ensure compliance with government guidelines.

Victoria has seen more than 100 new cases in the past week – emerging in clusters across the Hume, Casey, Brimbank, Moreland, Cardinia and Darebin local government areas – with most cases linked to community transmission.

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has also warned Victorians against travelling to these areas ‘until control of community transmission has been confirmed’.
The last time cases reached an average of 20 per day was 10 May, when NSW and Western Australia joined Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland in announcing the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions.
Some states have indicated they will monitor the situation in Victoria as they consider further easing of restrictions, including reopening borders.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has told people not to travel to Melbourne or its outer-suburban hotspots – or accept holiday bookings from residents of those areas – while Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said it will factor into any decision about reopening the state’s borders.
Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young also said anyone who has travelled to or lived in declared ‘hotspots’ within 14 days of entering the state must self-quarantine for two weeks upon arrival – even if the border opens on 10 July as planned.

Queensland considers the hotspots to include all 31 local government areas in greater Melbourne – rather than the six that have been officially flagged by authorities – as well as bordering areas of Murrindindi, Mitchell, Moorabool, Macedon Ranges and Greater Geelong.
South Australia is due to reopen its border on 20 July, but the State Government has not ruled out staying closed if the outbreak deteriorates, while WA Premier Marc McGowan has already confirmed the Victorian outbreak means he will delay reopening the state’s borders in August as originally planned.
‘Clearly what has happened in Victoria means that we will take that into account in any decisions we’ll make, but like everyone I’m very worried about it when you see these outbreaks,’ Premier McGowan said.
‘Once they get out of control people can die and I don’t want to see that come here.’
Western Australia’s government maintains its hardline border closure will remain for as long as there is sustained community spread of the virus in the eastern states.
However, while increased activity in Victoria will likely affect borders, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Nick Coatsworth has said it should not prevent other states and territories from proceeding with the planned easing of restrictions as the virus situation is different in each jurisdiction.
‘It would be unreasonable for WA or Northern Territory or, indeed, Queensland at the moment to be making decisions on their restrictions necessarily with a close eye on what’s going on in Victoria, because their epidemiology is different,’ Dr Coatsworth told reporters in Canberra.
‘Importantly as well, for those states where restrictions are lifting, that doesn’t imply a lifting of our personal behaviour standards that we have become so used to.
‘All those elements have been exceptionally successful in controlling COVID-19 in Australia thus far and there is no reason to expect that will be any different into the future.’
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