Why coronavirus deaths in Australia 'will peak in coming days'

Tom Flanagan
News Reporter

While there is a sense of optimism across Australia as the number of new coronavirus cases continues to decrease, a leading infectious diseases expert has warned the daily death toll will continue to rise in the coming days.

Since March 28, when Australia recorded its highest daily total of 460 cases, the number of people testing positive daily has decreased every day bar one.

Live blog: Coronavirus news and updates from Australia

By Sunday, the daily total had dropped as low as 143.

However Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious disease expert at the Australian National University Medical School, said while it appeared the government’s restrictive measures including border closures and stringent social distancing restrictions were working, the death toll would continue to rise.

“With deaths, we will see increasing deaths because deaths lag two to three weeks after the peak of the curve,” he explained to the ABC.

“I think the peak death numbers will be in the next week or so but then they should fall as well.”

On Sunday, five of the nation’s now 40 deaths were confirmed, while authorities in NSW and Victoria announced a further two deaths each on Monday.

This meant the national death toll has doubled within the last week.

Professor Tony Blakely, an epidemiologist from the University of Melbourne, previously explained it would take on average a further 11 days for someone to be diagnosed with coronavirus and then to develop serious health issues and then to be admitted to ICU.

Using this modelling, hospitals across Australia should see a peak of people admitted to ICU on Wednesday, before the number of deaths peaks some time after.

As of Sunday, there were 91 people in intensive care across the country while 33 people were on ventilators.

People at a Melbourne testing facility. Source: AAP

Will Australia try and eradicate COVID-19 altogether?

Australia has been ramping up its ICU capacity in recent weeks, with fears the nation’s health system could become overwhelmed in a way seen in multiple countries across Europe as the virus spread uncontrollably before heavy restrictions.

Australia currently has scope for about 4,400 ICU beds, it was confirmed at the start of April. The government is aiming for more than 7,000 beds.

Prof Blakely explained on the University of Melbourne’s expert commentary site Pursuit that Australia’s data and policy announcements indicate Australia is working towards eliminating community transmission altogether.

He said there were three options the country could now take.

The government can try and eradicate the virus completely, although Prof Blakely said this was ambitious and unlikely to provide successful results.

As hinted by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, the social distancing restrictions, which Prof Collignon described as “overzealous”, will be relaxed a bit further “down the track”.

This would mean cases and deaths would continue to grow, but would be controlled and allow the health system to cope with a manageable number of patients until a vaccine is developed.

University of Queensland virologist Professor Ian Mackay told Yahoo News Australia the current restrictions in place, and thorough contact tracing has given the nation time to prepare for such a scenario and ensure the health system will be able to cope.

“If we [keep implementing the restrictions] we’re going to keep seeing what we’re seeing so far which is a slower spread of the virus in the community,” he explained.

“It’s still likely to spread as we’re seeing but it will slow and will give us more and more time to make sure we can deal with the more severe ill ones, and that helps us buy time until we have a vaccine.”

Prof Blakely said a third possibility was to continue with rigorous restrictions until 2021 when a vaccine is available, which will minimise fatalities but would come at a significant cost to the nation’s economy.

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