One of Australia’s leading epidemiologists has called for the Northern Beaches to be completely closed off from Sydney over Christmas amid a growing coronavirus outbreak there.
University of NSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws, who works as a World Health Organisation advisor, said the the region of about 250,000 people should be ring-fenced immediately after its outbreak ballooned to 17 locally acquired cases on Thursday.
This would entail completely shutting off the Northern Beaches from the rest of Sydney, meaning people could not enter or leave the area, with Prof McLaws saying it would be most effective at two weeks in length.
“If you asked me how long to do it I would say twice an average incubation period and that is 14 days,” she told Yahoo News Australia.
“Ring-fencing buys you time and flushes out anyone who hasn’t turned up for testing.”
A two-week period would see the area shut off until 2021. A one-week period, which Prof McLaws said she didn’t believe was long enough, would still see the Northern Beaches sectioned off on Christmas Day.
However, she said such a process was “very hard” due to the demands on those in the community, admitting it was a “difficult time” for NSW Health to making decisions.
“[The government] will be very cognisant that the community won’t be happy about any ring-fencing.”
She said the NSW government may be more inclined to ring-fence for a much shorter period of time due to impending festivities over the Christmas period.
“We’ve got an additional factor that is problematic and that is Christmas and those added social events that occur,” she said.
New testing could assist control tactic
She said criticism of the tactic’s effectiveness when it was used in Melbourne for particular suburbs was because the Victorian government failed to go hard enough.
“They allowed people to come and go and therefore walk out the virus,” she pointed out.
A development that would enable the ring-fencing to be more effective is the introduction of rapid point of care testing which can give a result within minutes.
Such testing could be used on essential workers such as nurses to leave the area with confidence.
While she said there was about a five per cent risk of false positives, a normal COVID-19 test could be processed within 24 hours.
Prof McLaws said widespread, compulsory mask usage across Sydney should now be in place but questioned the value of mandating face coverings and suggested simply a strong recommendation may work due to people’s willingness to prevent a wave of infection in the city.
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