The Australian Medical Association, Doherty Institute and Burnet Institute have all pleaded for Australia to reopen from the COVID pandemic slowly, warning again of major strain on hospitals and rising death tolls even after 80 per cent of over-16s have been vaccinated.
The latest warnings came as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews outlined his state’s roadmap out of lockdown on Sunday, with hopes for outdoor dining and drinking next month and large family gatherings by Christmas.
But modelling underpinning the reopening forecasts that Victoria could see case numbers of nearly 3000 a day within a month.
“The health system needs to be much better prepared to deal with the growing burden of COVID-19, as well as be able to deliver non-COVID-19 related care,” AMA president Dr Omar Khorshid warned.
Mr Andrews’ much-anticipated roadmap laid out plans for a gradual reopening of Victorian public spaces once the state hit 70 per cent adult double-vaccination rates, and more significant changes at 80 per cent.
The state’s lockdown will effectively end at 70 per cent, expected on current trends to be October 26, with stay-at-home orders lifted for fully vaccinated people at that point.
Small groups will be permitted at outdoor hospitality venues, hairdressers and community sport.
The larger changes at 80 per cent, expected around November 5, include allowing home visitors again, larger hospitality and entertainment capacities, opening all retail, and boosting numbers at religious ceremonies or weddings.
Masks will still be required inside.
Victoria’s plan is more conservative than the roadmap outlined in New South Wales by Gladys Berejiklian, who will allow a wider reopening of hospitality and retail at 70 per cent vaccination.
But modelling from the Burnet Institute, which helped inform the Victorian roadmap, laid out a sobering warning that the state could see nearly 3000 cases a day, just as the 70 per cent double-vaccination target is hit.
It’s the latest alarm raised by top epidemiologists, after the Doherty Institute – whose modelling underpinned the Commonwealth’s reopening roadmap – warned that Australia may need periodic lockdowns or stay-at-home orders even beyond 70 per cent vaccination.
“Even without any easing of restrictions, there is a moderate risk of exceeding health system capacity,” Burnet’s modelling for Victoria found.
On current projections, Burnet warned of a daily case peak of between 1400 and 2900 in late-October.
The plans for significant restriction easing at 80 per cent could create a second peak in mid-December, the Burnet modelling found.
Mr Andrews admitted Victoria would be in for tough days ahead.
“Make no mistake, we are opening this place up. There is no alternative. There is a gateway here, it will be challenging, but we must pass through it,” Mr Andrews said.
“We cannot have a perpetual suppression of this virus … there will be pain, it will be challenging, it will be very hard on our amazing nurses and doctors and ambos and the whole team in our hospitals.”
Ms Berejiklian has also been preparing her state’s citizens for concerning case numbers and health outcomes, warning for weeks that NSW’s hospital system would come under immense strain.
On Sunday, she said the health infrastructure could become “technically overwhelmed”, requiring an emergency response to set up temporary intensive care beds and wards.
“Between 70 per cent and 80 per cent double dose is still a very risky time for us,” Ms Berejiklian said.
“We know the system will be overwhelmed in October, and we are
planning for it.”
NSW recorded 1083 cases on Sunday, its lowest number in weeks, while Victoria reported 507.
Those numbers put both states squarely in a danger zone outlined by the Doherty Institute, which shared further analysis on Friday warning it may be less safe for jurisdictions to move into Phase B and Phase C of the reopening plan while experiencing high case numbers.
New modelling from Doherty outlined if a state had case numbers in the thousands per day while transitioning to Phase B of the plan at 70 per cent vaccination, then ‘medium’ level public health measures would be needed as a trade-off to keep cases at a manageable level.
The Doherty modelling assumes ‘low-level’ or ‘baseline’ public health rules, like minor capacity limits, will continue into the foreseeable future for the whole nation.
‘Medium’ measures include stay-at-home orders, the closure of indoor recreational venues and largely closed schools.
At the current rate, NSW would expect to have cases above 1000 when it hits the 70 per cent double-vaccination mark, expected around October 8.
Under the Burnet modelling, Victoria may also expect to see more than 1000 cases a day at the time it is expected to hit 70 per cent double-vaccination.
“As coverage increased beyond 80 per cent coverage, the epidemic came under control. But starting from a point this high led to more cases overall,” Doherty said of its latest modelling.
“These findings confirm our earlier strategic advice that even high levels of vaccination will not be sufficient to stop COVID-19 in its tracks.”
The AMA said the Doherty modelling, formulated after questions from low-COVID states like Western Australia and Queensland about how they could open to NSW, made the case for a more cautious reopening.
“When implementing the national plan we must be realistic, careful and test each change and the impact of measures before moving to the next phase, given that there are thousands of COVID-19 cases in the community,” Dr Khorshid said.
The AMA is calling for “pause and assess periods” after each stage of reopening, to give time to analyse the effects on infection numbers.
Dr Khorshid also urged states with “significant outbreaks” to keep their lockdown measures in place for longer, and to ease those restrictions slower, than the rest of the country.
But NSW and Victoria have actually laid out the most detailed plans for reopening out of all the states, and have higher vaccination rates than most of the low-COVID states.
This makes it more likely they will open up sooner than the likes of Queensland, WA and South Australia.