Feature

Ending the second wave: How did Victoria get to zero active cases?


Anastasia Tsirtsakis


24/11/2020 5:18:55 PM

Ring-fencing, lockdowns, mask-wearing, testing blitzes, closed borders. Victoria’s journey to zero was an eventful one.

Graph of Victorian cases
Victoria’s daily and active cases peaked in August.

August was perhaps the most difficult time in Victoria’s second COVID wave.
 
From a single-day peak of 725 cases on the fifth day of the month, to a high of 6768 active cases on the seventh, it seemed to many in the state the crisis might only be beginning.
 
Thankfully, however, the numbers started to move in the opposite direction.
 
There was doubt over whether it could be achieved, but for the first time in 269 days – since 29 February – Victoria has made it to zero active cases of COVID-19.
 
The last patient to have contracted the virus, a man in his 90s, was cleared and discharged from hospital on 24 November.
 
It took considerable effort – and a considerable toll – but Victoria is now COVID-free.
 
‘We are very pleased to be able to confirm there are now zero active cases of coronavirus in our state,’ Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said.
 
‘It presents us with an opportunity to thank all of those nurses and doctors and hospital cleaners, ward clerks, ambulance [staff] … for the amazing work they’ve done throughout this global pandemic event.’
 
But it has been a long road for Victorians, particularly those in metropolitan Melbourne, since the second wave kicked off in June.
 
At the abattoir
Concerns started to grow on 2 May, when an outbreak at Cedar Meats saw a cluster of eight confirmed cases grow to 90 over the course of just 12 days.
 
Soon after, on 26 May, a manager on duty at one of Melbourne’s quarantine hotels tested positive, leading to five security guards and their families contracting the virus.
 
New daily COVID cases, however, remained relatively low, with the state hopeful on 6 June after recording no new cases for the first time since 5 March. This saw an end to remote learning, with some 600,000 students returning to classrooms on 9 June.
 
But it would be short lived. Just two days later, on 11 June, an attendee of the Black Lives Matter protest tested positive to COVID. That week, Victoria recorded its highest increase in a month, with 21 new cases announced on 17 June, 15 of which were returned overseas travellers and six cases of community transmission.
 
‘A day like today can make me nervous,’ Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton said at the time. ‘There’s still an indication community transmission is around in Victoria.
 
‘We’re continuing to review the epidemiology on a day-to-day basis in Victoria. It’s not about a single day’s activity, it is about a trend.
 
‘That’s why we need to watch it very closely and why we always need to caveat what our next steps are with, “it depends”.’
 
In hindsight, Professor Sutton was right to be nervous, as numbers would continue to climb for the rest of the month, largely as a result of household transmission.
 
On 20 June, one day before restrictions were slated to be eased, the Victorian Government restricted gatherings to five people per household, effective 22 June.
 
An inquiry into hotel quarantine commenced that same day, and it was later revealed that 30% of returned international travellers were refusing to get tested. At the inquiry’s closing submissions in September, lawyers would argue that the program that has cost the state $195 million, and was responsible for more than 18,000 COVID-19 infections and 750 deaths.
 
To help address community transmission, Premier Andrews announced a testing blitz on 25 June, with the Australian Defence Force (ADF) called in to assist.
 
On 30 June, 10 Melbourne postcodes re-entered stage-three lockdown, and all international flights were diverted from Melbourne for the following two weeks.
 
Four days later, as the state recorded 108 new cases – the first day above 100 since 27 March –lockdown expanded to include two more postcodes and nine public housing towers were placed under a controversial hard lockdown. Some 3000 residents were restricted from leaving the towers for five days, while undergoing testing.
 
Numbers continued to creep up and on 6 July Premier Andrews and his NSW counterpart Gladys Berejiklian announced the closure of the Victorian–NSW border for the first time in a decade, ahead of Victoria recording 191 cases.
 
Premier Andrews announced that stage-three lockdown would be extended to the whole of metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire for six weeks, effective 9 July.
 
Ten days later, Victoria recorded 343 new cases in a single day, reaching 2837 active cases. A state of emergency was extended until 16 August, and it was announced face coverings would be mandated for people in metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire when leaving home, effective 23 July.

Daniel-Andrews-Hero.jpg
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and his NSW counterpart Gladys Berejiklian closed of the Victorian–NSW border on 6 July, the first such closure in a decade. (Image: AAP)

Hitting the peak
A state of disaster was later declared on 2 August, as 671 cases were recorded and seven deaths, taking the number of active cases to 6322.
 
Metropolitan Melbourne was moved to the more stringent stage-four lockdown, and saw travel restricted to within a 5 km radius and a curfew from 8.00 pm – 5.00 am.
 
New case numbers peaked on 5 August, with 725 recorded cases, and while daily case numbers started to decline, active cases did not peak until 7 August at 6768.
 
Father’s Day did not bring the good news the community expected, with Premier Andrews announcing the extension of stage four restrictions until October.
 
A four-step roadmap for reopening was announced, with the first step towards easing restrictions to commence on 13 September, as the state recorded 41 new cases. This saw the curfew reduced and outdoor recreational time extended, along with the introduction of a social bubble with one other person for single people and single parents. Regional Victoria moved from stage three to two.
 
Metropolitan Melbourne started to see a drastic decline in number as it moved to step two on 27 September. It recorded 16 new cases, dropping to a rolling average of 22.1 from more than 400 cases seven weeks prior. Deaths continued, however, with the state’s toll reaching 800 on 1 October.
 
As numbers continued to decline, the 5 km travel limit in metropolitan Melbourne was increased to 25 km and time restrictions were eased, while regional Victoria moved ahead to step three of the roadmap.
 
It was on 26 October that Victoria, for the first time since 9 June, recorded no new cases or deaths. Ending 112 days of lockdown, Premier Andrews announced the easing of restrictions and retail and hospitality permitted to open with density limits.
 
Continuing to record zero cases and with active cases declining, Melbourne’s 25 km ‘ring of steel’ was brought to an end on 9 November.
 
After a disruptive four-month closure, the Victorian–NSW border opened on 23 November, with travellers no longer required to quarantine, along with the scrapping of face coverings while outdoors and able to socially distance.
 
Victorians now have their sights set on reaching the 28-day target of no active cases to reach the final step to ‘COVID normal’.
 
If they are successful in doing so, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has announced the state will reopen to Victorians on 1 December, together with Sydney residents, after closing the border in August.
 
Professor Sutton took to Twitter to praise Victorians for their efforts.
 
‘A testament to Victorians who endured and succeeded in a monumental task. Something to be so, so proud of,’ he wrote.
 
The state’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Professor Allen Cheng, however, was quick to remind Victorians that the pandemic is not yet over.
 
‘It doesn’t mean the threat is gone, but certainly a milestone considering we had 7880* active cases on August 11,’ he tweeted.
 
Around the country
There are currently 95 active cases in Australia (at time of publication on Tuesday 24 November):

  • NSW – 12
  • Queensland – 15
  • Northern Territory – seven
  • Western Australia – 25
  • South Australia – 37
The majority of new cases have been confirmed or linked to overseas travellers, but authorities in South Australia are keeping a close watch on the Parafield cluster, which now accounts for 27 of the state’s 37 active cases.
 
One new case was recorded on Tuesday, linked to an overseas arrival who tested positive to the virus.
 
The state’s Chief Public Health Officer, Professor Nicola Spurrier, has encouraged people to wear a mask in instances where socially distancing is not possible.
 
SA Premier Steven Marshall has said the state is on track to ease restrictions by Tuesday 1 December.
 
* The peak has been revised to 6768 cases on 7 August, because the data is being continuously updated and processed to account for duplication and allocating cases to the date of test, rather than the date of notification to the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services.
 
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