Some experts have expressed shock and concern after it was revealed Victoria recorded a new record-high day of 723 coronavirus cases yesterday.
There was hope on Wednesday the state had reached a peak in infections after two days of lower numbers that saw cases drop below 300 but yesterday’s numbers have far exceeded the previous record of 532 cases on Monday.
Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely told news.com.au that he was surprised by the huge jump in cases.
“It’s not the number I was hoping for,” he said.
“There is still a lot of day-to-day variation but it is a big bounce and more of a daily bounce than you would expect to see if numbers were coming down.”
Prof Blakely acknowledged daily results could be impacted by the fact that tests were often processed in batches but he said “a number greater than 700 is still concerning”.
However, Chair in Epidemiology at Deakin University, Professor Catherine Bennett, said it was not totally unexpected.
“Like everyone else, we’re all disappointed when we see a number like this but I was aware it was a possibility, I was hoping it wouldn’t happen but I’m not surprised,” she said.
Prof Bennett said she noticed eight new aged care facilities had been revealed on Monday to have one positive staff member each.
“I always knew there would be a risk that when they tested the rest of the staff and residents at the facilities then we could see more numbers,” she said.
“With existing outbreaks and the potential new clusters, I knew there was potential on any given day we might see a rise in numbers.”
She said Victoria appeared to be working through a large number of new coronavirus cases linked to the aged care outbreak, with more than 100 new active cases yesterday linked to the sector.
Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters yesterday that 913 of the state’s 5385 active cases were linked to the aged care outbreak. This compares with 804 active cases on Wednesday.
“These numbers today are a reflection of increased cases in aged care,” he said.
More than 80 aged care facilities in Victoria have been affected, which is a substantial proportion of the more than 430 venues in the state.
Once the new cases linked to these outbreaks have flushed through the system, Prof Bennett hopes an improvement in community transmission will be able to be seen.
“Once we move through these aged care cases then we will be able to see how much we’ve suppressed case numbers in the community, but it might take a week or two to get through,” she said.
“Numbers should come down quickly after that.”
Prof Blakely agreed that if cases numbers were largely related to aged care then it was not unexpected for the numbers to be rising.
But both Prof Blakely and Prof Bennett now don’t think Victoria will be able to come out of lockdown within six weeks and that an extension will be necessary for authorities to get community transmission down to low figures and keep it there.
“I hope within six weeks cases will come down to double digits if not single digits but we need to keep the numbers down for a couple of weeks after that to ensure we’ve contained it,” Prof Bennett said.
Crucial factor to recovery
A crucial factor in containing the virus is cases of community transmission which don’t have a known source.
At his press conference yesterday Premier Andrews played down the number of community transmission cases and said they would make up a fraction of the 700 cases.
While he said cases of community transmission were “still too high”, they were certainly not 700 and would be a “very small number”.
Mr Andrews said further insights into modelling on community transmission trends might be presented in a press conference later this week.
Asked how the public should respond to yesterday’s number, Mr Andrews said: “There’d be significant concern across the community and I’m obviously concerned to see these numbers increase”.
However, he added: “It is not unexpected in some ways when you have got so many cases in private sector aged care, when you’ve got so many cases connected to big outbreaks in specific workplaces”.
Premier Andrews has again emphasised the importance of people not going to work sick, noting that authorities had discovered this was still happening.
While the jump in coronavirus case numbers was disappointing, Prof Bennett said it was important for people not to give up wearing masks or maintaining social distance.
“The numbers are being driven by big clusters and it’s important people don’t give up on what they are doing individually,” she said.
“This will prevent future clusters in aged care and other workplaces and then we will see the benefit.”
More needs to be done
Prof Blakely believes it will take another week before the trend in cases becomes clear but he believes authorities should be acting now to try to push numbers down.
He pointed out there would still be some transmission from asymptomatic people in workplaces because they won’t realise they are ill. He said a full-blown system design response in workplaces should be done.
“It’s a matter of looking at the flow of people in the system and how they bump into each other,” he said.
For example if truck drivers, who drive to many different areas, were arriving at a distribution centre and socialising with other drivers or staff, then measures should be put in place to stop this from happening.
He said control of these workplace outbreaks came back down to how businesses were separating their staff to minimise contact between people, as well as mask wearing.
“All levels of management need to feel empowered to look at their environment and identify the risks,” he said. “They need to feel empowered to act, don’t wait to be told.”
Prof Blakely was scathing about the aged care outbreak and said more should have been done earlier to prevent the crisis.
Precautions such as not allowing staff to work across different sites and for them to be trained properly in infection control should have been taken.
“The utter incompetence of the aged care sector is astounding,” Prof Blakely said.
“We failed to take the most obvious lessons from Italy, Spain and the UK – that this virus gets into aged care and causes chaos.
“Frankly people need to be held accountable for this, it’s as bad as the hotel quarantine situation. It’s the state’s second big fiasco and it should not have happened.”