With a few more safety measures in place, Australia will be very close to eliminating the coronavirus, infectious diseases experts say.
But one last state is blocking our path to victory – and for once, it’s not Victoria.
The path to a COVID-normal Australia became clearer when Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced a slate of eased restrictions on Sunday.
Mr Andrews, however, remained firm on face masks remaining mandatory when out in public.
Among the changes was the removal of Melbourne’s 25-kilometre travel limit from Monday, and reuniting the city with regional Victoria following months of separation by a ‘ring of steel’.
On November 23, NSW will reopen its border with Victoria.
After 10 days straight of zero new coronavirus cases, it is now Victoria – not NSW – that should be worried about the threat of interstate travellers.
“Rather than being the place that lives with the virus, NSW is now the outlier in Australia and a threat to the rest of us,” said Associate Professor Ian Mackay, a virologist at the University of Queensland.
Former World Health Organisation epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman agreed, saying “Victoria is doing much better than NSW”.
“If they carry on with what they’re doing, they’ll end up like other jurisdictions that have basically eliminated COVID-19,” he said.
As of Sunday, there were 42 active coronavirus cases in NSW, compared with just four in Victoria.
What will it take to reopen Australia?
NSW needs to tighten restrictions and encourage more people to wear face masks, experts told TND.
“Australia has got the opportunity to eliminate COVID-19 completely,” Professor Esterman said.
“All it would take would be minor changes to what NSW is doing, which wouldn’t have a major impact on businesses.”
Such changes included mandating mask wearing and reducing the number of people allowed in a household at any one point in time, he said.
“They would impact people’s lifestyles, but they wouldn’t impact the economy and it would give us a chance of getting down to zero cases on a regular basis,” he said.
Professor Esterman acknowledged NSW had done a “great job” of stamping out coronavirus outbreaks, but said as long as the state remained the “only source of community transmission in the country” then it will continue to pose a small risk to other states and territories.
For this reason, it is crucial that coronavirus testing in NSW stays at “high levels” and sewerage systems are kept under surveillance, Associate Professor Mackay said.
“The virus is just ticking away in NSW and that’s a risk,” he said.
“At any point, it could be ticking away to a point that leads to a larger outbreak. That’s a threat to the rest of Australia and I don’t think that’s being talked about enough.”
On Sunday, NSW reported 13,721 tests in the past 24-hour period, compared to 16,865 in Victoria.
“We continue to urge anyone with even the mildest of symptoms to seek testing immediately, then remain in isolation until a negative result is received,” NSW Health’s Dr Michael Douglas said on Sunday.
Traces of SARS-CoV-2 have also been detected in samples taken on November 5 from the sewerage system that drains parts of Quakers Hill, Castle Hill, Annangrove, Kellyville, Box Hill, Kenthurst, Glenhaven, The Ponds, Rouse Hill, North Kellyville, Kellyville Ridge, Beaumont Hills, Stanhope Gardens, Baulkham Hills, Glenwood, Bella Vista, Parklea, Acacia Gardens and Norwest.
The positive sewage result can be due to shedding of the virus by someone who may have previously had the illness, with the virus ‘shedding’ through their system for up to six to eight weeks later, NSW Health said.
Calls for a national contact tracing system
One by one, state and territory border restrictions are gradually easing, raising hopes of a united Australia before Christmas.
On Friday, Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein said plans to reopen the state’s border to Victoria may be brought forward from December 1.