Disease and health experts have called for an even tougher lockdown and mandatory mask wearing in Victoria with the aim of achieving virus elimination.
As the state recorded Australia’s worst day of the pandemic, with 428 new infections on Friday, the expert group stated “elimination is possible” by “going hard” with more stringent measures.
The statement is in contrast to the Prime Minister who has warned of the economic risk of targeting zero cases.
Writing in The Medical Journal of Australia, the prominent physicians outlined a ten-point strategy to shut down schools and all shops – including hardware and department stores – only allowing supermarkets and pharmacies.
Their plan to maximise the chances of virus elimination includes tightening the definition of essential workers to keep more people at home.
Importantly they said mandatory mask-wearing could help make the greatest difference in preventing the spread of COVID-19 – especially indoors.
If 90 per cent of the population wore masks in indoor crowds, it would have the best chance of achieving elimination, they said.
They said for best results masks should be mandatory in places physical distancing was difficult such as supermarkets and public transport.
The call comes as Greater Melbourne and Mitchell Shire are in a six-week lockdown in which residents must stay at home unless shopping for food and supplies, care and caregiving, exercise, study and work.
The team led by epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely says the state should use the current lockdown period to set the goal of elimination, adding that success was not guaranteed without widespread compliance.
“But we argue that it would be a bigger failure to not enhance the probability of elimination by augmenting the current lock-down now,” the article states.
“Our work and those of others who have independently considered the alternatives consistently demonstrates that elimination is possible, and if achieved optimal for health and long-term for the economy.”
The article said leadership was critical to Victoria pursuing elimination which was proven possible in countries like New Zealand and some Australian states.
“Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews (and indeed all State and Territory Premiers) should explicitly declare ‘elimination’ as the goal,” they write.
“This should be accompanied by increased transparency and target-setting including the appointment of an expert advisory group in order to increase trust in the process.
“An explicit goal will more likely avert a public clamouring for premature opening up again as case-numbers fall and will recognise that these investments will have greater health and economic payoffs in the future.”
Earlier this week Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned that attempting to eliminate COVID-19 altogether would destroy the Australian economy and was probably not achievable.
The numbers don’t lie
Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly is expected to outline some good news on Victoria’s reproduction rate on Saturday.
The reproduction rate is the number of people infected by a single positive case and is considered crucial to controlling the spread.
“It is looking very positive compared with what it was about three weeks ago,” Professor Kelly said on Friday.
While the large infection numbers in Victoria were disturbing, he said there were good indications movement restrictions were working and people were taking notice.
Victoria’s cases on Friday were the highest to date, with 122 people in hospital, including 31 in intensive care.
Meanwhile NSW recorded eight new coronavirus cases, with 42 cases now linked to the Crossroads Hotel in southwest Sydney.
The state has 101 active cases with one person in intensive care.
NSW will tighten restrictions next week, with a 10-person booking cap at pubs, restaurants and cafes.
Weddings will be capped at 150 people and guests must be seated at all times.
Masks in the country
Regional Victorians are now encouraged to wear masks as the government steps up its campaign to restrict the state’s coronavirus outbreak.
Cases remain low outside metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire where a stay-at-home order is in place, but Mr Andrews said the situation outside these areas could change rapidly.
“If you are out and about in regional Victoria and you do not think you can maintain social distancing then we request that you wear a mask,” Mr Andrews said.
“That mask can be home-made.
“It can take the form of simply wearing a scarf.”
Over the past two weeks there have been 42 virus cases outside the stage three restricted area.
Greater Geelong has eight active cases and will be the first regional hub to get a new 10-person public health team.
The experts will work out of Barwon Health tracing contacts, identifying new cases and informing decisions about restrictions.
Public health experts will be sent to do the same in Bendigo, Ballarat, the La Trobe Valley and Shepparton.
The premier said regional Victorians needed to use their common sense when leaving their homes.
“We have had some cases of people who may be commuting to Melbourne, returning to regional communities and therefore infecting their family members,” he said.
There are more than 60 testing sites in regional municipalities and testing is available at many GP clinics.
All regional testing site locations can be found on the DHHS website and Victorians are encouraged to check the estimated wait time.
An inmate has tested positive at a Melbourne jail, sparking concerns about the risk of the disease spreading behind bars.
The man was being held in isolation at the Melbourne Remand Centre and returned a positive test on Friday. He doesn’t have any symptoms.
Any staff members or other prisoners who may have come into contact with him will be tested as a precaution, the justice department says.
The inmate went into corrections custody on Monday.
New pandemic measures mean all new custody arrivals are held in isolation for 14 days and tested.
It is understood this case is considered a low risk of transmission.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance says people on remand for non-violent offences or because they don’t have a home address, as well as prisoners aged over 65, should be released.
“Since the COVID-19 crisis broke we have said that prisoners are at grave risk of becoming infected and that the poor sanitary conditions of prisons around Australia means COVID-19 could spread quickly if it enters a prison,” alliance spokesman Greg Barns said.
The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service voiced concerns on Friday about the impact of a prison outbreak on Indigenous Australians, who are over-represented in the system.
The organisation urged the state government to consider “responsibly releasing” people from custody if they are low risk and nearing the end of their jail term.
The Victorian Greens have also called on the state government to release low-risk prisoners, with MP Tim Read describing them as “sitting ducks”.