Next 24 hours critical for Victoria’s COVID situation

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We’ve had our share of scary situations in Victoria since the devastating COVID-19 second wave in 2020, but it’s fair to say the situation we are now facing is the most concerning since then. The detection of a number of cases over the past few days, linked to the case who brought the virus from Adelaide, has ended almost three months of no community transmission.

The next 24 hours is a critical period to understand exactly what we are dealing with, and to make vital decisions about our response. What we do know is that we have to prepare for more cases being detected over the coming days, and in addition to the limited restrictions that have been introduced, we must prepare for the possible reintroduction of the type of restrictions we thought were long behind us.

A quiet Melbourne CBD on Wednesday as Melburnians brace for stricter COVID-19 restrictions. Credit:Wayne Taylor

In examining what we know about this cluster there is no sugar-coating the fact there are a number of elements that would be very concerning to authorities. Firstly, we still have not identified the epidemiological link between this cluster and the case who brought the virus into Melbourne from Adelaide. Whenever links between cases are not fully understood there is always the risk there are undetected chains of transmission, which makes controlling spread more difficult.

Secondly, although there is some reassurance that all of the identified cases in this cluster have been linked to each other, we do know we have had infectious individuals in the community for some time before this cluster was identified. This, along with the growing number of exposure sites and the type of exposure sites that are being identified, including a number of shopping centres and the MCG, is another worrying aspect of this situation and increases the likelihood that the number of cases will grow substantially over the coming days.

The key indicator of how we are tracking in controlling transmission will be how many of these cases are already in isolation when they test positive and how many test positive out in the community.

And thirdly, this cluster involves one of the new variants of concern, the B.1.617 variant. This is one of the variants responsible for the huge surge in cases in India we have seen over the past month or so. While we are in a steep learning curve about many of these new variants, it is pretty clear that the Indian variant is more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain of SARS-CoV-2. Dealing with a more infectious variant of the virus adds to the difficulty in bringing transmission under control.

Vaccines are prepared at the Melbourne Showground vaccination hub. Credit:Eddie Jim

Getting tested for COVID if you have even the slightest of symptoms, socially distancing where you can, and disinfecting your hands regularly are just some of the behaviours that we are going to need to maintain for some time to come.

And to those who have questioned why we need to wear masks and use QR codes when we don’t have circulating virus, what we are facing now is the exact reason why. If COVID does enter the community, wearing masks on public transport and using QR codes can be the difference between the public health team being able to get ahead of transmission and shut down the spread of the virus, or the virus gaining a foothold and authorities having to resort to the sorts of measures we all dread like lockdowns.

And finally, this is a reminder that we all need to roll our sleeves up literally. Every single person who gets vaccinated makes a difference. Every single person who has immunity to the virus makes it harder for the virus to move from one person to another. Getting vaccinated is the most important thing you can do right now for yourself and the community to keep us all safe.

Hassan Vally is Associate Professor in Epidemiology at La Trobe University.

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