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CoronaCheck #53

With Victoria’s “circuit-breaker” lockdown ended, debate has arisen as to whether more needs to be done to prevent the airborne spread of the coronavirus, believed to have been the likely cause of the state’s most recent COVID-19 cluster. This week, we’ve taken a look at the government advice on aerosol spread over the course of the pandemic.

We’ve also checked on some tricky legal wording in Victoria’s stay-at-home directions, and bring you the latest from the US on just who is eligible for the country’s first doses of vaccines.

Health authorities say they’ve been warning us about airborne transmission for months. Have they?

Suggestions that airborne transmission of the coronavirus sparked the latest COVID-19 outbreak in Victoria have prompted new calls for the Federal Government to place greater emphasis on the role of aerosols in the spread of the virus.

In an open letter to Australian authorities, Health Care Workers Australia, a group of frontline workers advocating for greater consultation on matters relating to healthcare worker safety during the pandemic, have urged “coordinated national action on aerosol transmission of COVID-19”.

Recent outbreaks in quarantine hotels have renewed the focus on airborne transmission of coronavirus.(ABC News: Patrick Rocca)

“Despite increasing global recognition and mitigation efforts [in regards to airborne transmission], there continues to be a lack of attention to the importance of ventilation in Australia,” the letter reads.

“The Australian Government has not produced any specific guidance or mandated relevant standards.”

The Australian Medical Association agrees, stating in a media release:

“The experts advising Government, the Infection Control Expert Group (ICEG), have continually played down airborne transmission in the spread of the virus in hotel and healthcare settings.”

But speaking on ABC Radio earlier this week, the chair of the ICEG, Lyn Gilbert, claimed that the group had “always recommended that there be good ventilation” so that the small particles contributing to aerosol spread be “rapidly dispersed into the environment away from people”.

So, what has been the messaging from Australian authorities on airborne transmission?

Firstly, it’s important to note that experts do widely agree that the coronavirus can and is spread through aerosols, tiny respiratory droplets which can linger in the air. In other words, the virus is airborne.

In July last year, 239 experts from around the world endorsed an open letter appealing to the World Health Organisation (WHO) to update its advice on the airborne spread of COVID-19.

And more recently, Kim Prather, an atmospheric chemist from the University of California, told ABC Radio that “all evidence at this point, that we have so far, points to aerosol transmission, airborne transmission”.

Official Australian Government guidance, however, offers very limited information when it comes to aerosol spread.

There is a greater risk of airborne transmission in poorly ventilated areas, like hotel rooms.(Unsplash: Free Us to Sounds)

A Department of Health web page outlining how the coronavirus spreads, last updated on February 5, makes no mention of airborne transmission, and appears to carry the same wording as it did when first published in March, 2020.

According to the page, COVID-19 spreads through close contact with an infected person, contact with an infected person’s cough or sneeze, or by touching objects or surfaces carrying droplets from an infected person and then touching your face.

Fact Check asked the department to point to any public statements or advice pertaining specifically to airborne transmission of COVID-19.

In an email, a spokeswoman referred to an October 2020 statement issued by the IECG.

While that statement acknowledges the potential for aerosol transmission in certain settings, it does not provide any specific advice for preventing such transmission, reiterating only the importance of “good hand and respiratory hygiene, physical distancing, staying home and getting tested”.

Despite Professor Gilbert’s assertion that the IECG had always made recommendations on good ventilation in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, Fact Check could find just one document from the group making any recommendation on ventilation in the context of COVID-19.

That document, published this month and relating to the prevention of COVID-19 spread in hospitals and other care settings, suggests that engineering measures “ensuring effective ventilation” need “greater emphasis”.

An email sent to Professor Gilbert requesting any additional guidance on ventilation or airborne transmission published by the group was responded to by a health department spokeswoman, who did not provide any further material.

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What experts were saying in the US, elsewhere

Meanwhile, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a “scientific brief” in October 2020 outlining how airborne transmission of the novel coronavirus can occur under “special circumstances”.

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“There are several well-documented examples in which SARS-CoV-2 appears to have been transmitted over long distances or times,” the CDC said.

“These transmission events appear uncommon and have typically involved the presence of an infectious person producing respiratory droplets for an extended time (>30 minutes to multiple hours) in an enclosed space.”

The brief concludes by outlining a number of suggested interventions for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including the use of ventilation and the avoidance of crowded indoor spaces.

Similarly, in a Q&A last updated in October 2020, the WHO stated that while the main way the coronavirus spread was through respiratory droplets, there was also evidence of airborne transmission.

“Aerosol transmission can occur in specific settings, particularly in indoor, crowded and inadequately ventilated spaces, where infected person(s) spend long periods of time with others, such as restaurants, choir practices, fitness classes, nightclubs, offices and/or places of worship,” the WHO said.

“Avoid crowded places and events, poorly ventilated indoor locations and prolonged contact with others.”

LIVE UPDATES: Read our blog for the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemic.Brett Sutton sets the record straight on lockdown

As Victoria entered a five-day “circuit-breaker” lockdown late last week, an excerpt from the official document outlining the restrictions was shared widely across social media, with many worried a longer lockdown had already been set in stone.

According to the document, the “restricted activity period” pertaining to the lockdown was listed as being between 11.59pm on February 12 and 11.59pm on February 26 — a two-week period.

“Prepare for a longer lockdown,” read a Facebook post from the Seymour Region Community Notice Board.

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Victorian Liberal MP Tim Smith, meanwhile, took to Twitter to ask the state’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton to clarify the directives.

“Can the @VictorianCHO explain why the [sic] these directions, the lockdown period is the period beginning at 11:59:00 pm on 12 February 2021 and *ending at 11:59:00 pm on 26 February 2021*,” Mr Smith asked. “Andrews said lockdown would end midnight on Wednesday!”

Lockdown did end at midnight on Wednesday, so why did the government document say otherwise?

In response to Mr Smith’s tweet, Professor Sutton explained that all COVID-19 directions are written as applying to the current State of Emergency period which, in this case, is slated to end on February 26.

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“The current directions should be revoked at the end of the circuit-breaker period, following review of the situation,” he said.

Fact Check verified that previous COVID-19 directions had indeed been issued to align with State of Emergency periods, which run for four weeks (the Government renews the State of Emergency at the end of each period).

From the US

With COVID-19 vaccinations under way in the US, the nation’s fact checkers have been busy debunking claims about just who is receiving the first doses.

One such claim made by Republican congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana was found by PolitiFact to be mostly false — President Joe Biden has not said that people who came to the US “illegally” could “jump ahead of other Americans who have been waiting to get the vaccine”.

According to the fact checkers, President Biden has said that all people living in America should have access to the vaccine, regardless of their immigration status.

“Current vaccination guidelines recommend certain essential workers and those 65 and older be vaccinated,” they said.

“So, while some unauthorised immigrants may be eligible, it’s because of their job or age, not immigration status.”

Meanwhile, a claim from the Illinois Republican Party that prisoners, politicians and college students would receive the vaccine before people with high-risk factors was found by PolitiFact to be half true.

“Along with people 65 years or older and frontline essential workers, inmates and state lawmakers are currently eligible to receive the vaccine in Illinois,” the fact checkers said.

“People with high-risk medical conditions who are younger than 65 and aren’t frontline workers still have to wait.”

This was in line with federal guidelines, PolitiFact said, while also noting that college students did qualify for the vaccine as a group.

Finally, a claim from a Nebraska doctor that the vaccine “went out for distribution” in the state before gaining federal approval was found by PolitiFact to be false.

“The US Department of Health and Human Services said that COVID-19 vaccines were not released for distribution prior to FDA approval,” the fact checkers reported.

In other news: What Facebook’s news ban means for fact checking

Amid a tense standoff with the Federal Government, Facebook has blocked Australian users from sharing news content on its platform while disabling Facebook pages belonging to Australian news organisations.

In a media statement published on Thursday morning, Facebook’s managing director for Australia and New Zealand, William Easton, said the Government’s proposed media bargaining law, which would see tech companies pay Australian news organisations for their content, “fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between our platform and publishers who use it to share news content”.

“It has left us facing a stark choice: attempt to comply with a law that ignores the realities of this relationship, or stop allowing news content on our services in Australia,” Mr Easton said. “With a heavy heart, we are choosing the latter.”

The news ban has seen the Facebook page of RMIT ABC Fact Check disabled, while posts to the site by fellow fact-checking organisations such as Full Fact, AFP Fact Check and FactCheck.org are not visible to Australian users. Some of these organisations participate in Facebook’s own fact-checking initiative.

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According to Russell Skelton, the director of RMIT ABC Fact Check, Facebook’s action was “extreme and unjustified”.

“To remove fact checks published in Australia in the middle of a global pandemic awash with misinformation casts doubt on the platform’s commitment to fact checking,” Skelton said.

“Australia’s many millions of Facebook users are being denied trusted verified information essential to the rollout of the vaccine and the national public health response to COVID-19. What Facebook has done can only accelerate the spread of malicious and misleading posts, something they say they want to stamp out.”

The error message that appears when someone in Australia tries to share a news article on Facebook.(Supplied: Facebook)

RMIT ABC Fact Check had 50,000 Facebook followers, noted Skelton, who were “now being denied access to our vast archive of posts debunking misinformation and those who spread it, as well as future updates. This is not in the public interest.”

In a statement, misinformation fighting organisation First Draft, said the organisation was “deeply concerned that Facebook’s restriction of news services from Australia will affect the ability of Australian users to access quality information during a critical moment, opening up a vacuum that could be filled, in part, by mis- and disinformation”.

The organisation said that in recent weeks, news reports from credible Australian sources had been “essential in countering harmful health misinformation posted on Facebook” and provided audiences with context relating to emerging issues and narratives.

“While we understand there are nuances to the code that will undergo further development, the timing of this impasse in the midst of a pandemic and Australia’s bushfire season puts Australian communities who rely on quality news at huge risk.”

First Draft’s director (Asia Pacific), Anne Kruger, cited recent coverage of comments made by federal MP Craig Kelly as an example of the role news organisations had in fighting misinformation on Facebook.

“For example, journalists recently being able to challenge and refute coronavirus claims by high-profile people such as Craig Kelly on Facebook — and for those refutations and further context in news stories to be viewable where people can easily access that on their Facebook feeds — was important to our democracy,” Dr Kruger said.

Edited by Ellen McCutchan

Got a fact that needs checking? Tweet us @ABCFactCheck or send us an email at factcheck@rmit.edu.au

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