Sydney’s Northern Beaches COVID-19 cluster worsens

Sydney’s Northern Beaches COVID-19 cluster has increased to 28, but with NSW Health still trying to find Case Zero, thousands of Australians are now reconsidering their Christmas travel plans.

All States and Territories are restricting entry to people from the Northern Beaches hotspot, except WA which will force anyone arriving from New South Wales to quarantine.

Professor Mike Toole spoke with RN Drive’s Patricia Karvelas.

The segment which also included Professor Paul Kelly, Acting Chief Medical Health Officer, can be heard here.

Ten more cases were recorded overnight, bringing the total linked to the cluster to 28.

Northern beaches residents have been asked to stay home for three days, but the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is so far resisting tougher measures.

Professor Toole believes more needs to be done, and quickly.

EDITED TRANSCRIPT:

PROFESSOR TOOLE: It’s quite possible, I’m not saying it’s definite, but it’s quite possible that the origin of that outbreak is someone who has been asymptomatic … but was infectious over the last five or six days, and maybe lives in another part of Sydney. Because we know from the Avalon RSL records that a number of guests that night were not from the Northern Beaches. So that’s my main concern.

Compare that with the Crossroads Hotel cluster (in Sydney), when New South Wales Health was able to identify the source … I think it was within 24 to 36 hours. Now, that hasn’t happened this time. So that keeps the considerable concern.

HOST: In New South Wales, do you think they’re undercooking their response to this outbreak by not locking down on mandating masks?

PROFESSOR TOOLE: Yes. And I’ve been listening all day today to so many commentaries. And there just seems to be so much wishful thinking. it contradicts what we’ve seen happen, not just in Australia, but around the world. Now, Patricia when we look back at when Melbourne was in a comparable situation. That was June, when we reported 25 cases, similar to what Sydney has reported, in the last 36 hours a week later it was 40. A week after that it was 100. And a week after that it was 290. And you know, as well as I do what happened there. And that was, according to the Chief Health Officer in Victoria, the time when contact tracing was overcome.

Now, look, we’ve heard 100 times how great the contact tracing system is in New South Wales, I’m not going to contradict that. But that’s not the only tool that we need to control an outbreak. And we’ve seen in countries like South Korea and Japan that have taken a similar approach. So really excellent contact tracing and isolation, that eventually they’re overcome. Both those countries now are overwhelmed with 3rd waves.

So in addition to great contact tracing, you need the other precautions that we know, prevent transmission of the virus. And that is social distancing, which is not happening in Sydney. And masks.

Now we know masks are as good as a vaccine that’s 80 per cent effective. And yet, I just watched on the ABC TV scene from Sydney Airport live, where everyone’s crammed into cues, and almost no one’s wearing a mask.

So I just think if they (NSW) don’t mandate masks tomorrow, then I think the (NSW) Premier and the Chief Health Officer have to explain clearly to the Sydney public why that’s not the case. They have never done that before.

HOST: What should they be doing right now then. What’s your view on how they should be handling it today and tomorrow?

PROFESSOR TOOLE: Well, going back to the Victorian situation, two days after that day, we reported 25 cases, we decreased the number of people allowed in the household from 20 to five. The Chief Health Officer signalled that he would soon mandate masks and there were travel restrictions within six northern local government areas of Melbourne.

Now northern Sydney has the advantage geographically of being basically cut off from the rest of city. So I think a total closure of that region would be advisable, masks to be mandated … We know from Victoria, that when masks were recommended, about 50 per cent of people were compliant when they were mandated was like 99 per cent so people are not clearly taking that advice.

Masks should be mandated on public transport and other settings (in Sydney). It’s pre-Christmas, people are packing the shopping centres. Now, today I went to the Prahran Market (in Melbourne) … every single person was wearing a mask and that’s 49 days after we last reported the case.

HOST: What do you anticipate over the next week? Because there are different responses from states shutting down borders or restricting movement. In some ways, we hope to be opened up by Christmas, but that looks incredibly shaky right now.

PROFESSOR TOOLE: I’ve never been strongly in favour of closing borders. But I understand now why states are acting as they are. And we have the example today of Queensland, of someone from the Northern Beaches who somehow got up there on a flight, and probably hardly anyone on the flight was wearing a mask, so I can understand that.

The principle I’ve been following is when you have a cluster like this, act fast, act hard.
And that’s not the case at the moment. It’s a lot of should’s and advice, but really nothing that you could classify as hard.

Even compared with the Adelaide outbreak, where they did go into an immediate lockdown. Not saying that should be across Sydney, but I would do it in the northern suburbs. Otherwise, you know, people are free to travel around Sydney, no one’s going to stop them at the Spit bridge. Maybe they should.

So I think the action has to be much tougher. And it has to happen now.

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