'Ticking time bomb': Expert warns of thousands of cases in just weeks

A leading epidemiologist has warned Sydney’s Northern Beaches coronavirus outbreak could spiral to more than 3,000 cases by early January.

Epidemiologist Professor Raina MacIntyre, who is Head of Biosecurity Program at the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute, labelled Christmas a “ticking time bomb” while she said New Year’s Eve a week later could send cases spiralling out of control across Sydney.

Experts are warning the Northern Beaches outbreak could explode. Source: Getty
Experts are warning the Northern Beaches outbreak could explode. Source: Getty

“The combination of silent infections, exponential growth and the calamitous timing of New Year’s Eve being within one incubation period of Christmas day is a tinder-box, and the Sydney outbreak could not have come at a worse time,” she explained in her latest blog post for the NHRMC Centre for Research Excellence Integrated Systems for Epidemic Response.

She predicts at the current rate of infection there will be 120 new cases by Christmas Day which will lead to several hundred new infections.

She warned the large number of people who are asymptomatic and the timing of the outbreak means December 25 will come when current infections are most infectious.

“We can then predict that about 400 newly infected people will be at peak infectiousness on December 31st, and that we could be looking at 3000 cases by January 8th,” she warned.

Prof MacIntyre said the situation is far worse than the Crossroads Hotel cluster in July when a truck driver brought the virus into the state from Victoria, leading to weeks of community transmission in the Sydney area.

She said a short, sharp lockdown for Sydney’s five million people, similar to the one imposed by South Australian authorities last month, may be needed if new infections don’t drop over the next 48 hours. She said this may prevent widespread transmission and allow Christmas gatherings to take place, albeit outside.

She said it was also vital testing was ramped up across not just the Northern Beaches but the entire Sydney area, with long waits deterring people from coming forward.

Calls for ‘super-spreader’ NYE celebrations to be scrapped

Prof MacIntyre called New Year’s Eve the “mother of all super-spreading events”, a celebration fellow UNSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws says should now be scrapped.

“Certainly New Year's Eve, sadly, should be cancelled this year,” she told ABC News Breakfast.

Prof McLaws, a World Health Organisation advisor, told Yahoo News Australia on Friday the Northern Beaches should be ring-fenced until after New Year’s Eve to prevent the spread of the virus.

There are growing calls for New Year’s Eve events in Sydney to be scrapped. Source: Getty
There are growing calls for New Year’s Eve events in Sydney to be scrapped. Source: Getty

She warned against a soft ring-fencing which she says failed in Melbourne and urged the government to prevent anyone but essential workers from leaving or entering with strict road blocks.

Both Prof MacIntyre and Prof McLaws stress the importance of mandating masks across greater Sydney to prevent further spread of the virus.

“Masks mandate across greater Sydney will make a difference, especially as people are flooding shopping malls in huge numbers for their Christmas shopping,” Prof MacIntyre said.

She said without making them compulsory, only between 30 and 50 per cent of people will wear them.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told ABC News Breakfast on Monday that the advice currently was to wear a mask indoors and on transport however there were complexities to mandating masks.

New virus restrictions for Greater Sydney, Wollongong and Central Coast

  • Household gatherings will be limited to 10 visitors (until 11:59pm Wednesday).

  • The one person per four square metre rule will be re-introduced for all indoor settings including hospitality venues and places of worship.

  • A cap of 300 people will apply for hospitality venues and places of worship.

  • Singing and chanting at indoor venues will not be allowed.

  • Dancefloors will not be permitted, except for weddings, when a maximum of 20 from the bridal party will be permitted.

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