Image: A deserted Melbourne, The Age. Justin McManus.
Victorian health authorities must be smarter about their approach to lockdowns when the next coronavirus outbreak inevitably emerges so that unnecessarily long and punishing COVID-19 statewide shutdowns are avoided.
Health reporter, Melissa Cunningham writes in The Age/SMH there is a rising chorus of Australia’s leading infectious diseases experts, who say a complete rethink of coronavirus lockdowns is needed.
Burnet Institute Director and a microbiologist, Professor Brendan Crabb AC was among the experts, along with Professor Adrian Easterman from the University of South Australia, Professor Catherine Bennett from Deakin University, and Professor Tony Blakey from University of Melbourne.
Below is an excerpt from the article.
Weary Victorians emerged from the state’s fourth hard lockdown on Thursday night, bracing themselves for at least another week of ongoing restrictions. Whether Victoria waited too long before declaring a lockdown to contain its latest spate of coronavirus outbreaks is a question that has weighed heavily on Professor Brendan Crabb.
“Theoretically, the answer might be yes,” the microbiologist and head of Melbourne’s Burnet Institute said.
“Lockdowns are an essential part of the pandemic-control tool kit because they work. Nobody wants to use them. You desperately don’t want to use them. But, ironically, if you want to use them smartly then you have to pull the trigger early, you have to act incredibly early on in an outbreak.”
But closing business, schools and confining millions of people to their homes on a partial judgment call is understandably contentious because there was no denying it caused “tremendous collateral damage,” Professor Crabb said.
“It is an extremely tricky space and you need smart and pretty brave authorities to be able to make those calls quickly and strategically because, of course, it is painful for people and there is no question about that,” he said.
“We need to look after those who suffer the most from it. But it comes with a big prize, which in Australia, is this remarkable COVID zero that we have and its associated economic benefit … and even civil society benefit.”
Image: Professor Brendan Crabb AC
Business leaders last month predicted Victoria’s most recent lockdown would cost more than $1 billion a week.
“Instead spending billions of dollars on lockdown, why don’t we spend a billion on building quarantine facilities in each state because that is where every single leak is coming from,” Professor Adrian Esterman said.
To curb leaks from hotel quarantine, Professor Crabb wants a national task force on airborne transmission set up to prevent repeated virus leaks from hotel quarantine, which have hit more than 20 cases in the last year.
Vaccine coverage, variants of concern that continue to emerge and the scale of the overseas epidemic will be crucial factors in determining when we can end lockdowns and rely on simple public health interventions such as face masks.
Epidemiologists warn lockdowns remain on the horizon for many months to come until Australia can build up enough immunity through vaccinations.
But Professor Crabb said lockdowns must be called as early as possible and kept short and sharp: no longer than two weeks.
“We might just have to face the facts that we may not be completely finished with them just yet,” Professor Crabb said.
“For the next six to nine months we are just as susceptible to a decent outbreak as ever and to stop it we have to use the tools we have previously.”
Until the day comes when lockdowns are no longer needed, Professor Crabb said smarter mitigation measures must be used to keep schools open during outbreaks as experts warn frequent classroom closures are causing more long-term emotional harm to children than the virus.
Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely is one of a growing number of infectious disease experts who say it is increasingly unlikely Australia will reach herd immunity.
“COVID never plays simple,” Professor Blakely said. “This black-and-white concept of magic herd immunity, I suspect we’ll never achieve it because variants will keep coming up and popping up.”