As Australia grapples with a surge in coronavirus cases from community transmission, medical experts are warning Australians to brace for its real first wave of COVID-19 infection.
Professor Nick Talley from the University of Newcastle, who is the Editor-in-Chief of the The Medical Journal of Australia, has warned the nation Victoria’s spike in cases over the past month is not a second wave.
“We essentially never had serious community transmission, until now,” he explained on Twitter.
“We are having our first wave in Victoria, now likely in NSW and Queensland is at risk.”
Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician at the Australian National University, agrees, saying while the majority of people would call March’s spike in cases the first wave, the 200 plus cases being announced daily in Victoria are presenting Australia with its first real challenge.
“Most [previous cases] were returned overseas travellers they were more readily identified and therefore followed up, quarantined,” he said.
People talk about the 2nd #coronavirus WAVE. It's NOT the 2nd in Australia. We essentially never had serious community #COVID transmission. Until now. We are having our 1st wave. In Victoria. Now likely in NSW. And Queensland at risk. We need to take more action. #COVID19Aus https://t.co/A20tXTfRtY— MJA Editor in Chief (@MJA_Editor) July 13, 2020
Prof Collignon said Melbourne’s recent surge in cases “is much more of a concern as it is mainly community spread and many have no obvious source”.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters last week it was irrelevant whether people wanted to call the virus the second wave or not and urged people to focus on the battle that was now ahead.
Can coronavirus be eliminated still in Australia?
Prof Talley believes Australia’s decision to pursue a suppression strategy was wrong and the nation should have chased eliminating the virus – and still should.
The decision at the time was a contentious issue, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison wary of the nation’s badly-damaged economy and growing unrest in society due to stringent lockdown measures.
“The eradication pathway involves an approach which would see even more economic restrictions than are currently in place and that is not seen to be, a wise, in our view, trade-off in how we are managing the two crises that we are facing, the economic one and of course the health one,” he said in April.
Yet at the time Australia’s medical experts, namely then Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy, regularly touted elimination as a by-product of the suppression strategy, suggesting it was more than possible as Australia’s statistics aligned closely with New Zealand’s – a nation who did go after elimination.
Professor Archie Clements, an epidemiologist at Curtin University, told Yahoo News Australia in April, as the nation’s daily cases began to drop significantly, that the government’s plan would likely result in elimination of the virus.
And while that appears to have happened in some parts of the country, including Tasmania which had its own outbreak in April, Professor Murphy had warned the nation could not rest on its laurels if eradication was in sight.
Fast-forward three months and Australia is now facing a vital time which will determine how the virus’s spread will develop, with many fearing that more than a thousand cases in the last week in Victoria alone could see the nation go down the path of other badly-hit nations such as France or even the UK.
Victoria’s Chief Medical Officer Brett Sutton admitted on Friday contact tracers were now “stretched” to their limits with well over 5000 close contacts of confirmed cases now identified.
Coronavirus eradication ‘can still be done’
Yet despite the surge in cases in recent weeks, Prof Talley doesn’t believe it is out of the question to chase eradication at this stage.
“In my view it can still be done. There will some short-term pain to make that happen,” he told news.com.au.
He said however, a longer and wider lockdown than what is currently in place in Melbourne would be needed.
Professor Sutton too has thrown his support behind the consideration of the strategy.
“As a public health person, I’d be very happy if elimination were a feasible thing to achieve,” he told reporters.
“I would hope that as we move through this phase in Victoria... that we don’t close ourselves off to a re-evaluation [of the nation’s strategy].”
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