Australia’s two most pivotal moments in the fight against the coronavirus are yet to come.
As of Tuesday morning, the latest public health alerts have been issued for these NSW places:
- Twenty-One Espresso in Double Bay in Sydney’s east
- Anytime Fitness in Berowra
- Asquith Golf Club in Mount Colah
- Aura Threading and Beauty in Hornsby
- Westfield in the upper north shore.
Our pandemic winning streak hinges on the way NSW health authorities and residents respond to the outbreak in Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
Their actions will shape how the nation brings in 2021 – and the timing is not in our favour.
“We know there will be people who get infected on Christmas Day,” UNSW Professor Raina MacIntyre told The New Daily.
“Christmas is a super-spreader event, because you’ve got people travelling all over the city to parts they don’t normally travel – probably to a lunch and a dinner – contacting many more people than they normally would.”
It’s not just Christmas Day we need to worry about.
“It’s the timing between Christmas and New Year’s Eve that matters the most,” Professor MacIntyre said.
This is where the science becomes especially important.
Studies show most people who contract COVID-19 will develop symptoms within 14 days of infection.
Of those, about 90 per cent become infectious by the fifth or sixth day.
That’s the period when they are at their most infectious, which is precisely why Professor MacIntyre is so concerned about New Year’s Eve.
“The 25th of December and the 31st of December are the biggest social events of the year in our country,” she said.
“Anyone who gets infected on Christmas Day will be at the peak of their infectiousness on New Year’s Eve because of the incubation period.”
Professor MacIntyre said another risk was the fact that about half of all people infected with COVID-19 never show symptoms, but are as infectious as those who do.
This is why universal mask wearing can have a big impact, she said.
So far, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and federal Health Minister Greg Hunt have not mandated face masks, not even on public transport or in supermarkets where social distancing is challenging.
It’s a move that has shocked Melbourne woman Tula Wynyard, 27, who is in the locked-down suburb of Avalon, where the Sydney cluster began.
“It’s still a bit weird to see people around without masks,” she told TND, reflecting on Victoria’s mandatory face mask rule while the state battled its second wave.
“Obviously I think I’d prefer it was mandatory from what I know about the Melbourne lockdown. It seemed to make a really big difference as soon as it came into play.”
Melbourne’s Stage 3 restrictions, coupled with the compulsory use of face masks in public settings, helped prevent 37,000 coronavirus cases, shows research from the Burnet Institute.
For Ms Wynyard, who endured 15 weeks under Melbourne’s hard lockdown, it feels like “history repeating itself”.
“I felt so triggered watching the press conferences again and waiting for the day’s numbers,” she said.
Her advice to people in Sydney is to act quickly.
“The sooner we take it seriously and get on top of it, the sooner we can be free again,” she said.
Associate Professor Ian Mackay, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Queensland, agreed with Professor MacIntyre, who “has been saying all along to go fast, go hard, go early” when outbreaks emerge.
“Sydney thus far has chosen to live with the virus, and they’ve managed to do that well, but this seems to have quite a large number of cases compared to smaller outbreaks,” he said, adding Christmas was a “massive risk” of being a super-spreader event.
Associate Professor Mackay said Australia wasted a precious opportunity to effectively eliminate COVID-19 in November, when Victoria conquered its deadly second wave.
At that time, nearly every other state and territory had virtually eliminated the virus by keeping case numbers close to zero.
Except for NSW.
“We have one particular member of the team that does not want to be quite that stringent in eliminating it,” Associate Professor Mackay said.
“But any state that is living with the virus is putting the rest of the country at risk.”
He said NSW owed it to the rest of Australia to “do everything it can to keep everyone else safe”.
That includes making face masks compulsory, and sealing its state borders to stop the virus from escaping, he said.