While the coronavirus pandemic continues to hold a firm grip on the state of Victoria, people in NSW are nervously waiting to see if they too are staring down the barrel of another lockdown.
On Tuesday Victoria reported another 374 cases compared to NSW’s 13, as it heads into its third week of a six-week lockdown.
Victorians are also preparing for a face mask mandate which will come into effect in the Metro Melbourne area and Mitchell shire at 11.59pm Wednesday.
As coronavirus cases continue to spread in southwest Sydney, residents are concerned cases could be on the brink of exploding once again.
However epidemiologist at UNSW and Advisor to the World Health Organisation Infection Control and Prevention Guidance Development Group for COVID-19, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, suggests there are three things NSW could do to prevent another lockdown like Victoria.
Professor McLaws said wearing face masks, closing all clubs for seven days and increasing the rate of testing could help NSW to avoid being locked down again.
1. Wear face masks to prevent coronavirus spread
Professor McLaws says NSW could follow in Victoria’s footsteps by wearing face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19.
While at the beginning of the pandemic she agreed masks should not be mandatory to ensure personal protective equipment was not in short supply for health workers, she now believes it is the best option to prevent acquiring and transmitting of the disease.
Due to the coronavirus being dispersed over several geographic areas, hotspot ring-fencing where you cordon off the area at risk of spreading to other suburbs is difficult.
“What we’ve always suspected is masks work – you don’t have to have a medical grade mask if everyone is wearing it,” Professor McLaws told Yahoo News Australia.
“It reduces breathing in exhaled breath with particles and breathing out with particles. It protects one who has an infection and others who do not.”
Professor McLaws added if everybody wore a mask - not just those people who were symptomatic - states with infections could gain dramatic ground when it came to controlling the spread.
A study by Virginia University found in countries with cultural norms or government policies supporting public mask-wearing, per capita the coronavirus mortality increased on average by 7.2 per cent a week, compared to 55 per cent each week in non mask-wearing countries.
The study also identified countries that favoured the wearing of face masks within 21 days of the outbreak – Japan, Vietnam, Philippines and South Korea to name a few – where the mortality rate by May 9 was 1.5 per million.
In countries where masks were recommended 31 days into the outbreak – for example Sudan, Bosnia, Kenya – the mortality rate by May 9 was 10.4 per million.
Professor McLaws said however masks would have to be worn in NSW in unison with Victoria otherwise borders would have to remain closed.
“If we didn’t, ground we would gain could be undone,” she said.
Professor McLaws said NSW residents should absolutely be wearing masks on public transport and in crowded spaces, including lifts with even just two people.
“NSW is quickly getting to a level that I identify as alert level – at least 100 cases over two weeks,” she said.
“If it keeps climbing we will have to start thinking about doing some strong interventions before it continues to climb.”
2. Close all clubs for seven days
Fifty cases have now been linked to a cluster which started at the Crossroads Hotel in Casula, in Sydney’s southwest.
The first new cases emerged from the pub after two patrons tested positive following a visit on July 3.
Cases have since spread to other areas including Sydney’s CBD, Parramatta, the Hills District and even Bateman’s Bay on the south coast.
Eight cases in all are linked to the Batemans Bay Soldiers Club, and Bega MP Andrew Constance, whose electorate covers Batemans Bay, said people are concerned given "a couple of hundred" people visit the Batemans Bay Soldiers Club every night.
With significant outbreaks at both the Soldiers Club and the Crossroads Hotel, Professor McLaws said they could act as a “super spreading opportunity”.
“Most of the cases seem to be associated with clubs and sadly I would be thinking of requiring people to wear a face mask or face shield – but it’s not why they go to clubs, they go to talk, eat and drink,” she said.
“But they are the focal point for people to meet – particularly in outer suburbs and regions. The social venues are an important part of life and seem to have been in the middle of July, a super spreading opportunity because the virus loves people having social times inside.
“You would have to think about shutting them down for a week.”
Professor McLaws said venues should start by shutting for a week as that is as long as the average incubation period.
“It’s not the social venue that causes the spread, it’s the people coming with the infection to socialise in that spot. If you take that away from them and they stay at home and you don’t give them an alternative, there’s less of an outbreak,” she said.
“People who go to clubs regularly know a lot of people and are hyper-connected socially.”
3. Increase coronavirus testing
With testing ramped up in Victoria to identify and trace coronavirus cases, Professor McLaws says NSW will also benefit if more people in the state come forward.
She says more public health messages are needed to encourage testing, including at the end of TV advertisements for allergy and cold medication.
“Each of those at the end of the ad should say, ‘go and get tested’,” she said.
“By all means take the [medications] to reduce symptoms, but go and get tested. You can sneeze, you can have an itchy throat and cough but they can be mild [coronavirus] symptoms that people can ignore and think are normal.
“Those ads are normalising this and need to have a final communication that says at the end, ‘go and get tested, go and see a health provider, ring up this number’.”
Is a second lockdown in NSW likely?
Professor McLaws said as NSW reaches alert level, those are the three steps she would put in practise to keep the state out of lockdown.
“Even if we keep numbers down people are still going out there, sitting across from friends not a metre and a half away, talking louder and pushing more particles out of lungs while inside for more than a few minutes,” she said.
While she is concerned the numbers over the past two weeks are hitting what she perceives to be an alert level, she believes a lockdown can be prevented.
“They could instead do things like mask-wearing and encouraging people if you are going out in public to wear a mask. That should suffice if they act fast,” she said.
“If [cases] continue to rise and the alert level multiplies by two fold or one-and-a-half fold, that suggests to me they’re not keeping a handle on the second generation of cases and then may have to go into lockdown.
“If everyone has to wear a mask in public regardless of hotspots, then I don’t think we’ll need to think about lockdown.”
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