Victorian contact tracers in fine form, hope for hospitals rises

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Victoria’s latest data has improved hopes of curtailing the COVID-19 outbreak and avoiding the extreme strain on hospitals predicted by government-commissioned modelling.

Fresh outbreak data shows Victorian contact tracers are performing optimally – better than their NSW counterparts – and vaccines have caused fewer COVID-infected Victorians to end up in hospital than during last year’s outbreak.

Premier Daniel Andrews said he hoped cases would plateau when the state reached the 50 per cent double-dose mark, which he said was about when NSW’s daily case numbers began to subside.

Prominent epidemiologists Tony Blakely, who carried out modelling for the Andrews government, and Catherine Bennett said cases could soon trend downwards.

The Premier offered no guarantee that unvaccinated Victorians would be spared “lockouts” from restaurants and events in the foreseeable future, on the same day NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced vaccinated and non-vaccinated people in that state would be subjected to the same set of rules from December.

Victoria recorded 705 new cases of coronavirus on Monday. Mr Andrews said case growth was at the slower end of the Burnet Intitue’s potential outbreak scenarios that underpinned last week’s reopening roadmap.

“I think it’s at the more positive end of the scale … but it can change quickly,” he said as the state neared 48 per cent double-dose coverage.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews provides a coronavirus update on Monday.Credit:
Photo: Scott McNaughton

“The 50 per cent double dose was a significant thing for [NSW], and you started to see some stability come to their numbers.

“We’re not at 50 per cent yet, but we’re getting quite close. To the extent that it was meaningful there, let’s hope it’s meaningful here, too.”

The latest flashpoint in the public debate over mandatory vaccinations emerged on Monday when the University of Melbourne announced its staff and students must be inoculated to return to in-person learning in November.

Within minutes of that declaration, the university’s National Tertiary Education Union branch joined a long line of trade unions opposing vaccine mandates, urging consultation.

“The branch committee calls on the university to NOT issue a vaccine mandate at this time, and to instead engage with staff and the NTEU about the full suite of safety measures,” a union statement said.

Raymond King gets his COVID-19 jab at a pop-up clinic at Waterloo, in Sydney’s inner-south, on Monday. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

NSW will begin winding back public health rules on October 11 after 70 per cent of its residents are fully-vaccinated. In December, when it’s hoped 90 per cent of people will have had two doses of the vaccine, unvaccinated Sydneysiders will enjoy the same freedoms as inoculated ones, with no limits on home visitors, and minimal density limits. Daily infections in the state continued to decline on Monday, dropping to 787.

Responding to the easing of restrictions for unvaccinated people in NSW, the Mr Andrews said his government had not yet turned its mind to which rules would be eased as vaccine uptake surged beyond 80 per cent, but warned against loosening restrictions for those who chose not to be vaccinated.

“I do not want to be signalling to people ‘well, don’t bother; don’t bother being part of the 80 per cent [because] there’s no urgency, you’ll only be locked out of the pub for a few weeks’,” he said.

“No one’s chasing 100 per cent … but we’re going to be pushing for as long as we possibly can.

“We’ve not even turned our mind really to when some of the vaccinated economy … might change and when everyone might be on an equal footing.“

Of Victoria’s 705 new cases, more than 400 were from the northern suburbs, 84 were located in south-eastern suburbs like Dandenong and Pakenham and 32 stemmed from the eastern suburbs.

The proportion of Victoria’s active cases in hospital is about 4 per cent, compared to 14 per cent in August last year when outbreaks were rife among Victoria’s unvaccinated aged care residents. Younger – who suffer milder strains of the illness, but are more susceptible to infection because fewer of them have been vaccinated – are fuelling the current outbreak.

Despite recording hundreds of cases for weeks, data from the federal Health Department’s national COVID-19 metric database shows 100 per cent of people who test positive in Victoria are notified within 24 hours, which is a key marker of top contact-tracing performance. In NSW, two-thirds are being told within a day.

Victorian disease detectives, whose performance was substandard in 2020, when a paper-based system was used, are also contacting 100 per cent of close contacts within 48 hours. NSW authorities are no longer providing data to the federal government on this metric.

The effective reproduction number – which measures how many people each infected person passes the virus onto – first dropped below 1 in NSW on September 9, when about 76.4 per cent of people in the state had received at least one vaccine dose. Victoria has just passed 77 per cent and its Reff [effective reproduction number] dipped slightly to 1.26 on Monday. A figure below 1 indicates a slowing outbreak.

The Burnet Institute modelling commissioned by the Victorian government predicted a first peak in daily average infections of between 1400 and 2900 in the last two weeks of October, before another peak in December. It assumed cases would keep growing at the same trajectory as they were at September 17.

Professor Tony Blakely.

Professor Blakely said it was too difficult to predict exactly when Victoria’s epidemic curve would start bending downwards, but he believed it would occur soon.

The professor said several variables affected the future trajectory of cases, including the impact of protests attended by two COVID-positive people last week. He said evidence of rule-breaking behaviour spawning cases – up to 45 per cent of Saturday’s cases were linked to illegal social activities – also created uncertainty.

“It’s bloody hard to predict,” Professor Blakely said, adding that the rate of spread among sub-populations in hotspots where the virus was spreading rapidly would determine whether the outbreak was curbed.

Professor Bennett said Victoria was beyond the vaccination rate of NSW when its outbreak started to turn, and said Victoria might experience the same effect any time now.

Victoria’s test positivity rate – the proportion of tests that are positive – has climbed above NSW; a sign there might be more virus in the community than authorities are detecting. The percentage of positive tests in Victoria is now 1.02 per cent, which is more than double the rate two weeks ago. NSW’s figure has dropped from 1.05 per cent two weeks ago to about 0.75 per cent.

Professor Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University. Credit:Jason South

Latrobe University Associate Professor Dr Hassan Vally said Victoria’s rising test positivity rate was not a case for panic, but authorities would want to suppress it and ensure cases were not being missed.

Professor Bennett said the positivity rate peaked near 3 per cent during Victoria’s second wave in 2020. She argued the higher rate was not necessarily a concern, but would be alarming if it coincided with a high number of hospitalisations that did not correlate with case numbers and pointed to undetected spread in the community.

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