Coronavirus 'may not peak until November' in Australian epicentre

Josh Dutton
News Reporter

NSW’s intensive care units might not hit their busiest for more than six months following the coronavirus outbreak, according to expert modelling.

A study published in the Medical Journal of Australia on Monday found increased social isolation could shift the peak period of infection to early October, with intensive care units at their busiest in mid-November.

As of Monday night, NSW has 1918 confirmed cases of coronavirus and eight of the 18 deaths have come form the state.

Coronavirus live blog: Latest news and updates from Australia

But even if restrictions on movement reduce the reproduction rate to 1.6 – meaning each individual with the disease infects 1.6 others – the state's ICU capacity could still be overwhelmed, according to researchers.

The rate of transmission on Monday dropped 47 per cent, from 174 cases between Saturday and Sunday to 127 between Sunday and Monday.

NSW Police prepare to shut off gym equipment to the public in Sydney on Monday. Source: Getty Images

"Under the scenario of increased social isolation, the peak infection will shift to early October and peak ICU utilisation will shift to mid-November and would be around one-third the size of the business-as-usual peak," the authors of the study wrote.

At that point, some five per cent of the population could be symptomatic, with more than 14,000 people in hospital across NSW and 5,100 patients in intensive care.

"This represents 585 per cent of the state's baseline ICU capacity prior to the epidemic," wrote the article's authors from the University of Sydney, Monash University and James Cook University.

A man washes the ground outside of the Sydney Opera House. Source: Getty Images

It’s a bit longer than what Prime Minister Scott Morrison predicted on Sunday night when he told reporters he expects the pandemic to last more than six months.

“It is important that parents and families and households can get the things that they need to completely change the way they are going to live for the next six months at least,” he told reporters.

The infectious diseases modellers note that prior to the current coronavirus epidemic there were 874 intensive care beds in NSW.

They argue that even with a doubling of existing services "the available supply is estimated to be substantially less than the peak requirement".

Hospitals and ICU facilities "are likely to be overwhelmed unless transmission can be reduced significantly", the authors suggest.

NSW Health has already revealed virus hotspots in NSW with most of the state’s coronavirus cases coming from the more affluent eastern suburbs. Almost 10 per cent are in the suburb area of Waverley.

Sydney residents wear masks for protection. Source: Getty Images

Why social distancing matters

The research found without social distancing measures, peak transmission would be in late-June with peak hospitalisation in July.

Sixteen per cent of the population could be symptomatic with more than 35,000 people hospitalised and close to 11,800 UCI beds needed, the modelling suggests. That's 1,349 per cent of baseline capacity.

The authors admit, however, that their "compartmental model" approach has several limitations.

A near-deserted Sydney street. Source: Getty Images

It depends upon assumptions including the current reproduction rate which remains uncertain.

The authors acknowledge the trajectory of the epidemic will be highly dependent upon the effectiveness of mitigation strategies.

"The present report does not estimate the effect of more intensive suppression strategies which would be likely to reduce the peak ICU requirement," they write.

NSW has already enforced limits on gatherings to two people unless they are immediate family.

Students are encouraged to stay home from school and employees are working from home wherever possible.

A man cleans one of Sydney's trams in Circular Quay. Source: Getty Images

Those over 70 or with chronic illnesses are advised to stay home unless they require medical care.

Playgrounds, skate parks and outdoor gyms in public places will be off-limits from midnight on Monday.

Last week, Mr Morrison announced all residents must partake in social distancing and leave 1.5 metres between themselves and the next person. 

He also urged pubs, registered and licensed clubs and nights, as well as hotels, to close their doors. 

with AAP

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