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Victoria is “obviously failing” to reach its roadmap targets for lifting restrictions, but that has little to do with perceived weaknesses in its contact tracing system, epidemiologists and other experts have said.
Prof Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist with the University of Melbourne, said the targets on the roadmap’s third and final steps for reopening effectively required elimination of the virus, despite Daniel Andrews repeatedly saying suppression, not elimination, was the state’s strategy.
“The Victorian road map has as its last two steps, steps you take if eliminating [is your goal],” Blakely said. “We are obviously failing to get there, which is a shame. But the point here is that the Victorian department of health and human services had those targets to try and get completely on top of the virus, hopefully … eliminating community transmission.
“Given cases are popping up again in New South Wales, and NSW does not believe long periods of elimination of community transmission are possible, this makes it challenging – if not even foolhardy – for Victoria to now go hard for elimination, given where we are at – a stubborn tail.”
He said it now made sense to pivot towards a policy of safely opening up, and while that would mean clusters would continue to pop up, Victoria’s contact tracing was in a position to emulate the success of NSW in keeping on top of the numbers.
“New South Wales has done incredibly well,” Blakely said.
“The daily metrics on contact tracing in Victoria suggest we are now on par. But let’s be clear – a safe opening up will mean a bumpy ride until the vaccine. Without doubt we will have outbreaks between now and then, even if contact tracing is exemplary.”
Prof Bruce Thompson, an epidemiologist and the dean of health sciences at Swinburne University, said Victoria’s contact tracing system had been improved, with local hubs now established throughout the state rather than a centralised system, an overhaul of the IT system, and rapid questioning and regular check-ins on close contacts of clusters.
But it was important to remember Victoria still had four times the number of active cases as NSW, and there had been more uncontrolled community transmission for a longer period. It was not just about the number of clusters or daily new cases, he said.
“If we were also down to that level of 26 active cases NSW has, then of course we will have a better handle on this, but don’t forget we had thousands of active cases when none of the other states did,” he said. “That’s something we will be cleaning up for a little while. We had 400 people in hospital with Covid. If there’s that much in the community … it’s hard to stamp it out. We are also aggressively looking for it.”
Victoria recorded 15 new cases of the virus on Monday, 12 on Sunday and 14 on Saturday. There were 11 mystery cases in the 14 days to 9 October. On Monday Andrews said the government was likely to change the threshold for easing restrictions in metropolitan Melbourne, which originally required the state reaching an average of five cases over 14 days, including no more than five mystery cases in that time.
“It’s that stubborn tail, those last few cases, one or two outbreaks and all of a sudden your rolling average becomes … it gets very tough, very tough for us to get where we had hoped to be,” Andrews said.
His comments came as hospitality figure Julian Gerner prepares to launch a legal challenge to the lockdown, including the five kilometre restriction, with businesses still facing uncertainty about when they may reopen. The chief executive of the Australian Retailers Association, Paul Zahra, said he was “gravely concerned by the fact we have not seen any specific plan that will guide retailers through the restart process”.
But Andrews said on Monday any easing of restrictions announced come Sunday would “be broadly in the social space rather than economic easing, but we may be able to do more on that front in regional Victoria”.
Thompson said the five kilometre rule should be the first restriction to go, given the “small effect” it was having on curbing virus spread, and he believes state borders limiting domestic travel need to go as well.
“Filling the MCG up and having 100,000 people really close together, packing people on public transport or workplaces, that’s not a great idea,” he said. “But let’s do all the things that we can that will only minimally change the numbers and start opening up. Provided we keep in place social distancing, good contact tracing, and come down on clusters like a tonne of bricks.”
The chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, Prof Catherine Bennett, said the stubbornness of the virus in Victoria compared to NSW might also be related to the nature of the outbreak.
“Chadstone is the main driver for Victoria now, and whilst they seem to have an index case, it looks like there was quite a bit of indiscriminate exposure at Chadstone so that does make it more complex to follow up, which raises the risk of more linked cases that aren’t visibly linked,” she said.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Victoria’s failure to hit roadmap targets shows ‘foolhardy’ strategy to eliminate virus, experts say | Australia news