Regional towns are increasingly nervous about the growing coronavirus threat, with some health workers reporting they’re not receiving adequate support.
And one regional Victorian Liberal MP says he would even consider advocating for a return to lockdown beyond Melbourne.
A cluster at the Australian Lamb Company processing factory at Colac – a small city in south-west Victoria – grew to nine over the weekend with the abattoir now closed and all workers ordered to self-quarantine.
Trinity College at Colac has also shut down until Thursday after a student tested positive, while two other nearby schools were forced to cease classes after reports of a coronavirus case on each campus.
Another two schools in the region were also closed.
But south-west Victoria isn’t alone in experiencing a rise in cases.
Over the past two weeks, about 40 new cases have been recorded outside of the locked-down areas of Melbourne and Mitchell Shire.
Concerns about clusters in regional areas are also growing in New South Wales, where the small coastal town of Batemans Bay where the Soldiers Club has been linked to coronavirus cases.
NSW has recorded its highest daily number of COVID-19 cases in three months.
The growing number of people testing positive in NSW has prompted the Premier Gladys Berejiklian to consider following Victoria in introducing mandatory masks, while there are plans to set up a border zone on the Murray River from midnight on Tuesday.
“If you cannot guarantee social distancing where you’re going … you must wear a mask,” Ms Berejiklian said.
Meanwhile, Tasmania’s two-month run without a new coronavirus case has ended after a young woman tested positive to the virus.
It has been confirmed that the woman had returned from Victoria.
She was in hotel quarantine and is now being treated in the Royal Hobart Hospital.
Tasmania had last recorded a COVID-19 infection 65 days ago and became free of active cases in mid-June.
The state’s public health service confirmed the woman’s positive test on Monday night, with more details expected to be revealed on Tuesday.
Fears of ‘considerable growth’
Liberal Member for Polwarth Richard Riordan said he was worried the outbreak in Colac could spread into country Victoria, predicting the emerging cluster was likely bigger than what has been reported.
“We know it’s going to be more than that,” he told The New Daily.
“There is going to be considerable growth.”
Mr Riordan said anxiety was made worse by delays from the Department of Health and Human Services in providing information about known cases.
“The meatworks hasn’t been given a list of infected employees, so (staff) are thinking ‘Is it me? Is it the people who work next to me?'” he said.
If the region’s coronavirus cases continued to grow, Mr Riordan said he would consider supporting an expansion of the stay-at-home directives to cover Colac.
“If it’s infected right through the meatworks, then perhaps a return to Stage 3 may be required,” he said.
Fears for Indigenous communities
The World Health Organisation has issued a warning that Indigenous communities remain especially vulnerable in the pandemic, as the worldwide death toll climbed to over 608,000.
“Indigenous peoples often have a high burden of poverty, unemployment, malnutrition and both communicable and non-communicable diseases, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19 and its severe outcomes,” Director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday morning.
He singled out the US, where 70,000 cases have been reported among indigenous peoples, but reminded countries of the need to protect the most vulnerable people.
The WHO boss urged countries to take all necessary health precautions, with special emphasis on contact tracing.
“We do not have to wait for a vaccine. We have to save lives now,” Dr Tedros said.
Frontline workers aren’t always using PPE
Only one in five Australian frontline health workers report they’re wearing face masks at all times, and even fewer workplaces have a mandatory face mask policy, according to a study released on Monday.
The national survey, conducted by PPE manufacturer Sofmed, also found healthcare workers were becoming increasingly worried about catching the coronavirus at work.
This fear has prompted more than one in 10 to consider changing jobs to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19.
It comes before new rules being enforced on Thursday that will require Victorians in the locked-down areas of metropolitan Melbourne and Mitchell Shire to wear a face mask or covering when out in public.
Those who refuse risk a $200 fine.
Retail store Chemist Warehouse said the demand for face masks has been “unprecedented”, adding many stores had “run out of the healthy stocks they had in place” on Sunday.
The Victorian government has placed orders for 1.37 million reusable fabric masks from five Victorian manufacturers, to be delivered during July and August.
Testing and health care expansion
The Victorian government has responded to rising case numbers in regional areas by ramping up coronavirus testing facilities and rolling out a new Geelong-based public health team.
The unit has been established at Barwon Health, starting with 10 qualified clinicians to help with case management and contact tracing.
There are also plans to set up more teams at Ballarat, Bendigo and Latrobe health services, as well as Goulburn Valley Health.
In addition, testing facilities have been established in five regional centres – Echuca Regional Health, Wonthaggi Hospital, La Trobe University Rural Health School, Goulburn Valley Health, Koo Wee Rup Community Centre and Mildura – as the authorities attempt to stem the spread of the coronavirus.