Last-minute changes are being made to Victoria’s contact tracing system as the state prepares to open up – but some experts are concerned Melbourne’s program still isn’t as good as it should be.
On Thursday, the state government announced it would tweak the contact tracing system so households with at least one positive coronavirus case would have a single manager instead of multiple.
While the streamlining should prevent the state’s health department from giving out ‘inconsistent’ messaging to COVID-19 patients, it will not fix all the issues with the system, GPs have warned.
It comes as authorities try to stamp out a fresh outbreak in Melbourne’s north after a student from the East Preston Islamic College tested positive for the coronavirus on Thursday.
All five cases reported on Thursday were linked to the northern suburbs of Dallas, Roxburgh Park, Broadmeadows, Preston and West Heidelberg, with more than 500 people told to isolate to help control the outbreak.
The freedom of millions of Melburnians now hangs in the balance as authorities try to quickly suppress the outbreak.
On Friday, the state recorded just one new case of coronavirus, bringing the crucial 14-day rolling average of new cases down to 5.5 for metro Melbourne. There were no deaths reported.
Problems with contact tracing
Melbourne GP Catherine Orr has treated more than 100 coronavirus cases and says families and households testing positive aren’t properly linked with their GP to ensure the virus is well-managed.
“In linking the GP into a COVID-19 patient, it’s been shown over and over in regional and rural areas they can contact trace faster,” she told The New Daily.
“They have the trust of their patients and can be an advocate for them when the messaging can go wrong or they need support accessing payments.”
After it was revealed that multiple families with infected cases had received conflicting advice from DHHS about isolating, Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer announced on Thursday that families would be managed by one case manager.
One of the nation’s most respected epidemiologists, professor Catherine Bennet, labelled this change as critical.
“Especially as under the new outbreak response system, people’s status and need for quarantine may change,” she said.
“People need to be sure this is not just conflicting advice but an actual update, and therefore getting this info from the same person will help clarify that.”
But even with the changes, Dr Orr said there were “still some issues” with the contact tracing system.
“In the last few weeks, I’ve had to argue on behalf of families getting incorrect messaging,” she said.
“I’m not pushing a political barrow. This is what NSW has been doing well.”
After the northern suburbs cluster grew, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews would say only that he was “hopeful” he could go ahead with an announcement of eased virus restrictions planned for Sunday.
“Frustratingly, again I can’t predict what the numbers will be tomorrow or the day after. But once we have got those and we make final touches and final refinements to what is possible and what is deemed safe, then we will have more to say on Sunday,” he said.
Although the contact tracing system has been upgraded in the past few months, there are still concerns it is not as efficient as it could be.
Infectious Diseases physician at ANU professor Peter Collignon said NSW still had a superior tracing program.
“When they have a case at a venue, a restaurant or on a train, they name it straight away. That still seems to be slower in Victoria,” he said.
“You’ve got to get that information out.”
Also, Victoria needs to up its game on sewage testing, he said.
“NSW and QLD announce when they do sewage testing with positive results straight away, I haven’t heard of the sewage test for Melbourne,” he said.
Melbourne’s mystery case count remained steady at 10 over the last fortnight but that means for every one of those cases, there’s another walking around who hasn’t been picked up, said professor Collignon.
“If you have a lot of mystery cases it implies there are more cases in the community you haven’t found,” he said.
The state was ready to ease some restrictions but needed to get completely on top of its mystery cases, he said.
“It says is your contact tracing is not as good as its should or could be because it hasn’t been as effective in finding them.”