Victoria could this week see coronavirus case numbers return to a level not seen since early July if current trends continue, the state’s Chief Health Officer says.
- Brett Sutton and epidemiologists say numbers could fall below 150 this coming week
- Victorians have been told face coverings will likely be a feature of any eased restrictions
- Any changes to the “complex mix” of clusters and cases could slow progress, an epidemiologist warns
It comes as authorities foreshadow mask-wearing will remain a feature of life in Victoria for some time to come.
The state’s death toll has again grown, with another 13 deaths recorded by Saturday morning, and concern remains about aged care and healthcare outbreaks.
But the rate of new infections has continued to slow, with 179 cases recorded on Friday — the lowest daily increase in five weeks — and 182 on Saturday.
The number of people in hospital is also stabilising, although 36 remained in intensive care on Saturday.
And areas of concern in regional Victoria, like Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong, have seen their numbers remain steady or decrease in recent days.
“The overall trend is positive,” Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said on Saturday.
The last time the state recorded fewer than 150 new infections in a day was on July 8, when 138 cases were added to the tally.
It was four days later that the Premier announced Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire would go back under stage 3 restrictions.
The state is now halfway through a lockdown due to end on September 13, which in Melbourne involves the stage 4 curfew, strict controls on people’s movements and the shutdown of many industries.
“If we’re sitting around the 180 mark, and then in five days’ time we could be at 70 per cent of that, and then the same in another five days,” Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett said.
“If we hold that pattern, we keep this lockdown really tight for these last remaining weeks … that’s definitely possible.”
Face masks and restrictions on gatherings likely to remain
Professor Sutton said he expected face coverings, which are now mandatory for most Victorians, would remain a part of life while there was still community transmission of the virus.
There have now been 3,838 “mystery” community cases in Victoria since the pandemic began, where the infection cannot be traced back to a known source.
Those mystery cases form part of what Professor Sutton called the “smorgasbord of factors” influencing how and when restrictions might be eased — something it is still far too early to lock in.
“What we want to try and do as soon as possible is try and get businesses back up and running,” said Marc Pellegrini, an infectious diseases expert at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research.
“As uncomfortable as it is sometimes, maybe mask-wearing will allow us to open up businesses sooner.”
Professor Pellegrini said alongside mask rules, he would expect semi-essential shops and businesses would be the first to reopen and strict restrictions on shopping and exercise might be the first to ease.
But restrictions on how far people can travel and how many people can socialise together may take much longer to be eased, he said.
Professor Pellegrini said Victorians would likely need to get used to the level of restrictions seen in May, when restaurants and cafes were allowed 20 patrons and up to 10 people were allowed in homes.
“It’s well and good to go to a shop because for the most part, that’s a fleeting encounter, whereas inviting people around to your house to have a party … that was one of the very last restrictions to be lifted, and it was lifted in stages,” he said.
‘Quite a bit of effort’ to see numbers fall
Health authorities and epidemiologists have warned even if restrictions continue to be effective, getting daily numbers down to single figures or zero could be a long process.
“It has taken quite a bit of effort to get down to those [current] numbers,” Professor Pellegrini said.
Hundreds of healthcare workers have contracted the virus and aged care settings remain an area of concern.
The health department on Saturday was investigating new cases linked to Dandenong Hospital, Warringa Park Specialist School in Hoppers Crossing and Cabrini Hospital in Malvern.
“You’ll still see clusters in certain high-risk areas where people have to aggregate,” Professor Pellegrini said.
“If we got to a point where the contact tracers weren’t completely overwhelmed, then we would be able to see the lifting of restrictions,” he said.
Professor Bennett said optimism about the weeks ahead needed to contain the caveat that “if something else shifts in this mix, in this complex mix of clusters as well as areas where you could see new outbreaks, then that could change things quite dramatically”.
“But at the moment we’re really tracking well towards double-digits at least by the end of this lockdown period,” she said.