After months of rising COVID-19 cases in Victoria, health officials and epidemiologists are expressing cautious optimism that the state has turned a corner in its fight against the virus.
- Epidemiologist Catherine Bennett says the recent reduction in new cases is likely due to mandatory masks
- The effects of Melbourne’s stage 4 restrictions will likely be realised in the coming weeks
- The Government is considering tougher restrictions on regional areas if cases there don’t stabilise
Thursday’s 278 confirmed new infections represented Victoria’s lowest daily increase since July 20.
Eight more Victorians with coronavirus lost their lives, a toll less than half of a record high of 21 deaths just a day earlier.
Premier Daniel Andrews likened the push to drive numbers down to “a real marathon”, but said the “heartbreaking” restrictions appeared to be working.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt also expressed his “cautious optimism” the “agonising” lockdowns were having an effect.
The state recorded 410 infections on Wednesday, 331 on Tuesday, 322 on Monday and 394 on Sunday.
Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett said she had been “quietly optimistic” as statewide restrictions came into effect.
“I do think we’re at a point where we’re able to really see the trends strengthening to indicate not only that we have flattened [the curve] but we have turned the corner and case numbers are coming down, in a consistent way,” Professor Bennett said.
University of Melbourne epidemiologist John Mathews called Thursday’s figure “encouraging”.
“Of course there are random fluctuations in numbers but it’s very pleasing to see that the overall trend is down in terms of numbers,” he said.
“We hope it won’t go back to three, four, 500 per day in the days to come.”
This week’s trend likely a reflection of mask-wearing
There has been a staggered tightening of restrictions across Victoria, with stage 3 restrictions for Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire on July 7 followed by mandatory face coverings about two weeks later.
Stage 4 restrictions for Melbourne and stage 3 for the rest of the state came into effect last week, with the final business regulations in place early this week.
“This week would be the week we would have really seen masks coming into effect, and this is the week where we’re really seeing the trend to really shift to more of a downward decline in cases,” Professor Bennett said.
“So it’s a good sign that stage 3 was effective and it became much more effective with the masks.
“It’s great to be able to see the impact of these extra precautions that we’re all putting in place, because it’s making a difference.”
Professor Bennett said if outbreaks were contained, stage 4 “could really start to push those case numbers down really quickly”.
With hundreds of cases still being recorded each day, the state has been warned to keep bracing for more deaths.
More than 2,000 active cases are linked to aged care settings, while more than 1,100 healthcare workers currently have the virus.
Authorities are also closely watching the rate of community transmission, where new infections cannot be traced back to a known source.
“It’s not time to be complacent, it’s ‘yes, this worked, we’re on the downhill slope, pedal harder’,” Professor Bennett said.
Authorities contemplating stage 4 restrictions for regional Victoria
The Government yesterday flagged the possibility of further lockdowns in the state’s three biggest cities if outbreaks in Geelong, Ballarat and Bendigo were not brought under control.
Melbourne’s stage 4 restrictions include a strict citywide curfew, a 5-kilometre limit from home for shopping and exercise, and tough workplace restrictions that have seen thousands of businesses temporarily close.
Regional Victoria, including local government areas with no cases, have four main reasons to leave the house under stage 3 restrictions — medical care or caregiving, shopping for supplies, exercise and work or education that cannot be done from home.
“Unfortunately, I think if we need to suppress the outbreak to the maximum extent possible, it’s likely that Government will decide to make the lockdown procedures in regional Victoria the same as in Melbourne,” Professor Mathews said.
“If they err on the side of caution then they’d go for the whole state, and not just Geelong, Bendigo, Ballarat,” he said.
Professor Bennett remained more optimistic, pointing to the fact that face coverings had only been mandatory in regional Victoria for about a week.
“Stage 3 with masks, seeing what it could do in Melbourne with really high rates of community transmission, should be enough in regional Victoria,” she said.
“If everyone’s a bit hyper-alert, very wary of symptoms and gets tested if they can, that’s what would prevent us needing to look at anything more strict.”