Victoria’s health department is bracing for a potential spike in COVID-19 cases around March and April as the weather turns colder and people start to congregate indoors.
Key points:Victorian authorities are preparing for a potential coronavirus spike in autumn and winterThey are monitoring the northern hemisphere experience to see what lessons can be learntThe AMA says good forward planning will help prepare for future coronavirus cases
The forecast is based on modelling of the northern hemisphere’s coronavirus experience and patterns of other respiratory diseases heading into winter, the ABC has been told.
Departmental officials have pointed to the risk during meetings with health sector representatives in recent weeks, several sources said.
It’s one of several scenarios the department is considering for the coming months, and officials are closely monitoring the northern hemisphere experience to see what lessons can be applied here.
The Federal Government has earmarked March to roll out COVID-19 vaccinations across Australia, but Victorian public health experts don’t think enough people will be immunised by autumn to offer wide-spread community protection at that time, the ABC understands.
Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair of Epidemiology at Deakin University, said a rise in cases around March and April would follow a similar pattern to what had been seen in Europe and the USA.
“March signals the beginning of autumn and following what we’ve seen in the northern hemisphere … there is concern that if you do have community transmission occurring, then it might then start to rise as you move out of the warmer months and start to move indoors.”
Epidemiologists like Professor Catherine Bennett are closely watching the situation in the northern hemisphere.(Supplied)Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from December 11 with our coronavirus blog.
Epidemiologist Professor Emma McBryde from James Cook University said there would also be an increased risk of returned travellers bringing coronavirus into Australia in the coming months, and the risk of the virus spreading after any quarantine breach would grow when the weather got colder.
“It’s very likely that the overseas cases, the US and Europe, and possibly even Asia, will increase into the new year, as we continue to repatriate Australians and ease our borders,” Professor McBryde said.
“It’s clear a proportion of [those] people will have COVID, so the risk of a breach of quarantine like we saw in Adelaide [in November] will only get higher, so we have to prepare for that.”
Professor McBryde said the virus survived on surfaces for longer in cooler temperatures and the risk was increased by people spending more time indoors.
“It’s impossible to unlock the two — both weather and more time indoors makes a huge impact. This is true of cold viruses and influenza as well.”
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Professor Bennett agreed and said autumn and winter also added an extra challenge around testing.
“People will have coughs and colds coming on as part of the winter cycle, and you have people with a whole lot of symptoms who might be less likely to get COVID tests even though they might have COVID.”
“So it’s sort of a more confused picture. But mainly it’s about people potentially moving indoors and that brings with it a slightly higher risk.”
Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has previously said the risk of coronavirus transmission is 20 times higher inside than outside.
Many European countries and the USA saw an increase in cases and a second wave with the arrival of autumn in late September.
Doctors warn against complacency
Victoria’s hospitals have been working since the end of the second wave to improve ventilation, PPE fit testing, and systems that were not effective in July and August when coronavirus cases were in the 100s every day.
Numerous healthcare workers spoke out against a lack of infection control in hospitals at the time, while many are still concerned higher standards are not being met.
Dr Sarah Whitelaw, from the Australian Medical Association (AMA), said the modelling showed why hospitals and aged care facilities needed to be ready to face another wave of coronavirus.
“We absolutely shouldn’t be complacent and [should use] the time we’ve got to prepare to deal with further cases and to also deal with future pandemics.
“Now is the time to get our staff fit-tested, to use our hierarchy of controls and all the information we’ve gathered about coronavirus.”
The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) would not comment directly on autumn being a risk period but, in a statement, pointed to Victoria’s record run of zero cases.
“We will keep this up if Victorians get tested and stay home if they’re feeling sick, practise good hand hygiene and wear masks in crowded spaces,” a DHHS spokesperson said.
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