Vic, QLD and NSW are managing COVID outbreaks in their own ways. But all are world-standard

Hassan Vally, La Trobe University

It hasn’t been the start to 2021 many of us wanted. In the past three weeks Victoria, Queensland and New South Wales have dealt with fresh COVID outbreaks, but it’s worth remembering each have faced unique challenges, and tackled them in different ways.

Despite their differences, however, all three have been clear about their intention to aggressively suppress transmission, and all have been effective in their responses.

Significant challenges remain, including the vexed issues of how we define hotspots, manage state borders and deal with threats posed by new COVID strains. And of course, how we deliver the vaccine en masse.

But triumphing over the challenges we’ve faced over the past few weeks should give us confidence as we move to the next phase of the pandemic.

Queensland’s precautionary approach

Queensland’s strategy was clear, decisive, and well articulated. As health authorities explained, the Greater Brisbane lockdown was a circuit breaker aimed at limiting interaction and buying time. This allowed contact tracers to do their job and authorities to learn more about the nature of the outbreak.

The fact it involved a new, more transmissible strain posed a significant threat. And it wasn’t clear, at first, how many chains of transmission had been initiated by the hotel quarantine cleaner who tested positive for it.

Read more:
Brisbane’s COVID lockdown has a crucial difference: it aims to squash an outbreak before it even starts

This was no doubt a cautious response informed by the precautionary principle. Given what was at stake, it was justified.

Greater Brisbane’s three-day lockdown ended at 6pm Monday night, and Queensland has recorded just one case of community transmission in the last four days — the partner of the cleaner, who has been in quarantine since January 7 (though could have been infectious in the community for two days prior).

The threat seems to have been averted for now.

We need to wait out the full incubation period for the cleaner’s more than 350 close contacts to see if there are any more cases connected to her, though all of these contacts are in quarantine, and so pose no threat to the broader community.

Victoria showcased its improvement

The Black Rock cluster in Victoria posed a significant risk and required an equally decisive response. It didn’t represent the level of threat Victorians faced at the beginning of its second wave, but given it occurred during Christmas and New Year’s plus the scars Victorians carried from the second wave, the threat couldn’t be underestimated.

Read more:
Dear Australia, your sympathy helps, but you can’t quite understand Melbourne’s lockdown experience

The response to this cluster was rapid and decisive. It allowed the Victorian health department to showcase just how much their response capacities had improved in the previous six months. It was incredibly reassuring to see how quickly the public health team was able to establish links, and how quickly they were able to identify contacts of contacts in order to block chains of transmission.

It was a test they passed, and with six consecutive days of no locally acquired COVID cases, Victorians can breathe a collective sigh of relief — for now at least.

While the rapid closing of the border to NSW was an important element of the response, I remain uncomfortable with the scenes we witnessed at the borders, and the notion of Victorian residents being locked out of their homes. I hope that, as we have seen over the previous 24 hours with the new “traffic light” travel system, the government can continue to refine the way it handles this issue.

New South Wales less risk-averse

New South Wales has always appeared to have a greater tolerance for risk when it comes to COVID than other states. Its response has been characterised by a “test, trace and isolate” approach and a reticence to lock down huge areas of Sydney. Lockdowns have been localised and relatively brief.

Many restrictions, however, are still in place — residents of Greater Sydney, Central Coast and Wollongong, for example, can still only have five visitors to the home, including children, and masks are now compulsory in many places. Hotel quarantine remains a vulnerability and refinements continue to be made, in NSW and elsewhere.

Despite its challenges, time and time again the state has shown it can keep virus transmission under control.

The situation it faced with multiple new clusters over the past three weeks could be considered one of its biggest tests. And for the most part, the state seemed to have a reasonable understanding of chains of transmission.

The way authorities respond to threats must be proportionate, but it’s as much an art as it is a science. Judgement calls must be made, and striking the right balance is not easy when uncertainty is high and luck plays such a huge part.

NSW has seemed to walk this line successfully so far. The latest outbreak did call for more aggressive measures such as a targeted lockdown in the Northern Beaches and the introduction of mandatory mask wearing. Along with testing, tracing and isolating, this has helped bring transmission rates under control.

On the downhill run to the end of this pandemic

There’s still a way to go in the fight against COVID. But unlike other parts of the world, Australia is on the downhill run to the end.

As much as we should be thankful for the good leadership shown by those making decisions, the real thanks is to the community, who have followed the rules and made huge sacrifices to get us where we are now.

Although we will face many challenges over the next year, Australia remains one of the shining lights in the fight against COVID. We are seeing the benefits of our sacrifices now, and will continue to see them for many years to come.The Conversation

Hassan Vally, Associate Professor, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus Update



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Australia on alert as Sydney’s northern beaches COVID cluster grows, linked to US strain

Catherine Bennett, Deakin University

It’s the last thing anyone wanted to hear, a week out from Christmas. But the growing cluster of COVID-19 cases linked to Sydney’s northern beaches has put Australia on alert.

There are now 28 cases associated with the cluster, with 25 linked directly either to the Avalon RSL, Avalon Bowlo, or both, NSW Health confirmed earlier today. A further two cases are direct contacts of the 25. One case identified via contact tracing, who had been at one of the Avalon venues, had subsequently flown to Queensland, but has since returned to New South Wales.

Genomic testing shows the strain from the northern beaches cluster to be an international variant of the virus, one currenty circulating in the United States. But what we don’t yet know is exactly how and when this international strain entered the country and how it spread to the community. One traveller still in quarantine, who has a similar strain and arrived in early December, is being investigated as a possible index case.

The Sydney van driver who tested positive earlier this week, after transporting international air crew, was also likely infected with a US strain of the virus, but a different variant. There have been no other cases associated with him so far and his close contacts remain in quarantine. In other words, it looks like he did not seed the transmission we’re seeing in Sydney’s northern beaches.

Travel plans disrupted

Today’s news further complicates Sydneysiders’ interstate travel plans, with most states and territories announcing various, and rapidly changing, travel restrictions.

If this cluster continues to grow, it looks likely northern beaches residents will have to rethink their Christmas plans and avoid large gatherings, especially of multi-generational families.

Some of the cases who acquired their infection in Avalon are from different areas in Sydney, and so there is still a risk the spread might be wider than the immediate northern beaches area. This will become clearer over the next couple of days as the contacts of these cases are tested, and as people who attended possible exposure sites across Sydney are tested.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian also said residents of other parts of Sydney should be on high alert:

Nobody should be getting on public transport without wearing a mask, nobody in Greater Sydney should be going to a supermarket or a place of worship without wearing a mask[…] It would just be crazy.

A list of sites where people may have been exposed, and are required to come forward for testing, is being updated regularly.

Where did this strain come from?

Genomic testing involves looking at the genetic sequence of various viral isolates to see if they are related. This can tell us whether cases within a cluster are linked, and can help identify the source of the outbreak — whether linked to other local cases, or a new introduction of the virus into the community, as in this case.

Genomic testing has already told us the virus at the centre of the northern beaches cluster is likely a US strain of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But we still don’t know how it ended up in the community and in the northern beaches.

The traveller in quarantine, who has a similar strain, arrived in early December. If this is the source, it limits the time the virus has been circulating in Sydney to two weeks or so, which would be somewhat reassuring — there may only be one or two cases in the chain of transmission between the arrival of the virus and the cluster we now know about.

Read more:
‘Genomic fingerprinting’ helps us trace coronavirus outbreaks. What is it and how does it work?

At this stage, we can’t rule in, or out, the possibility of other sources of this virus strain, including infected international aircrew. But news that quarantine arrangements for this group will be tightened, recognising it is a “weak link” in our chain of defence, is very welcome.

Air crews will now quarantine in one of two police hotels between flights rather than being spread across 20 or more city hotels where oversight of compliance with quarantine was left up to the airlines.

Contact tracing is also important

Evidence so far points to a significant “seeding event” on December 11. In other words, a person (or persons) who attended the Avalon venues at this time is thought to have been infectious, infecting a number of people while there. Some of these cases then attended a second local venue a couple of days later and more people were infected there.

The initial “index” case who attended the Avalon RSL on December 11 while infectious has not yet been identified. This person might not have been tested and remains unknown, or they did test this week but are no longer positive as they had recovered from their infection.

The index case could also be one of the cases we do know about — they may have been still asymptomatic on December 11 but infectious, and not developed symptoms till a few days later. Other secondary cases may have developed symptoms at a similar time if they had a particularly short incubation period, therefore it can be difficult to pinpoint who the index case might be.

We already have at least two secondary cases reported among contacts of those cases who attended these venues. That’s why it’s important to trace not just the immediate contacts of those infected, but the contacts of those contacts so that people who have already been exposed and infected, but are not yet infectious, are in quarantine pending the results of COVID testing.

If the evidence points to people in Avalon being infected more than a week ago where PCR tests (the type usually used to diagnose people) might not still work as the virus has been cleared, then authorities can use serology tests to check for past infection. This helps trace backwards, to understand the source of infections, and importantly, how this particular strain was introduced into the community. This also helps identify and shut down any “silent” chains of transmission that might have been missed upstream from the current cluster.

It’s really important to do this as quickly and as aggressively as possible.

What should we be doing in the meantime?

Northern beaches residents will need to continue following current NSW Health advice: limit movement of people into, out of and around the area; work from home where possible; avoid gathering in large numbers or in high-risk venues; and wear masks when they can’t physically distance.

NSW Health is doing all the right things to suppress this cluster. That includes identifying all the key sites where people may have been exposed, especially in Avalon, starting the process of identifying contacts of contacts, and opening up more testing clinics. This, together with the fact that all cases so far can be linked back to the key exposure sites means we are in a good position.

But a lot can happen in the week between now and Christmas. If the cluster spreads more widely, expect further travel restrictions, border closures and a very different Christmas to the one we were expecting only a few days ago.

Read more:
Eradication, elimination, suppression: let’s understand what they mean before debating Australia’s course

The Conversation

Catherine Bennett, Chair in Epidemiology, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Morrison remains very popular in Newspoll as the Coalition easily retains Groom in byelection

James Ross/AAP

Adrian Beaumont, University of Melbourne

This week’s Newspoll will presumably be the final one for 2020. It gives the Coalition a 51-49% two-party-preferred lead, unchanged from three weeks ago. Primary votes were 43% Coalition (steady), 36% Labor (up one), 11% Greens (steady) and 2% One Nation (down one).

This is One Nation’s worst result in a federal Newspoll since before the 2019 federal election. It comes after the party slumped by 6.6 percentage points at the recent Queensland state election.

Newspoll figures are from The Poll Bludger. This poll was conducted November 25-28 from a sample of 1,511 people.

Two-thirds of respondents said they were satisfied with Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s performance (up two points) and 30% were dissatisfied (down two), for a net approval of +36. Morrison’s approval rating has consistently been over 60% since April, following the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in Australia.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese recorded a net approval of +3, down one point. Morrison led as better PM by 60-28% (58-29% previously).

Read more:
Why good leaders need to hold the hose: how history might read Morrison’s coronavirus leadership

Coronavirus may be the only important issue for many voters at the moment, and Morrison is perceived to have handled that well. In normal times, issues less favourable to the Coalition would likely have gained traction, undermining Morrison’s ratings, but these times are not normal.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has enjoyed a similar polling boost in her state as well, due to her handling of the pandemic.

In a NSW YouGov poll taken after revelations of her affair with former Liberal MP Daryl Maguire, she still had a 68-26% approval rating.

LNP easily retains Groom at federal byelection

There was very little media attention on Saturday’s byelection for the safe Coalition seat of Groom in Queensland.

Only four candidates ran, representing the Coalition, Labor, Sustainable Australia and the Liberal Democrats.

The LNP won by 66.6-33.4%, a 3.9% swing to Labor since the 2019 federal election.

Read more:
Final 2019 election results: education divide explains the Coalition’s upset victory

Primary votes were 59.0% for the LNP (up 5.6%), 27.8% for Labor (up 9.1%), 8.0% for Sustainable Australia and 5.3% for the Liberal Democrats. The major parties benefited from the absence of One Nation and the Greens, which respectively won 13.1% and 8.0% in 2019.

Analyst Kevin Bonham says the average swing against a government at byelections in its own seats is 6%, so this is not a great result for Labor.

Furthermore, there was a 5.2% swing to the Coalition in Groom in the 2019 election, as it romped to a 58.4-41.6% drubbing of Labor in Queensland.

If federal Labor had recovered support in Queensland since then, a much bigger swing would have been expected.

While Labor easily won the recent Queensland state election, state and federal voting can be very different.

Biden’s popular vote lead stretches

In the Cook Political Report tracker of the national popular vote in the US presidential election, President-elect Joe Biden leads incumbent Donald Trump by 51.1-47.1%.

Biden’s four-point lead is up from 3.1 percentage points on November 8 when the states of Pennsylvania and Nevada were called for him, making him the presumptive winner. Many mail votes are still be counted in New York, which will heavily favour Biden as well.

Biden came out on top in the Electoral College vote count, 306-232.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

Biden’s popular vote margin now exceeds Barack Obama’s margin of 3.9 percentage points in 2012. But Obama won the “tipping-point” state that put him over the magic 270 electoral college votes by 5.4 points, while Biden won his tipping-point state (Wisconsin) by just 0.6 percentage points.

Trump performed 3.4 percentage points better in the tipping-point state in 2020 than in the national popular vote and this difference will increase further as more New York votes are counted. In the 2016 election, the difference was 2.9 points.

Read more:
What’s behind Trump’s refusal to concede? For Republicans, the end game is Georgia and control of the Senate

In the House of Representatives, the Democrats lead the Republicans 222-206 in seats, with seven races uncalled.

Republicans lead in all seven of these uncalled races. If they hold their leads, Democrats will win the House by just 222-213. That’s a net gain of 13 seats for Republicans from the 2018 midterm election.The Conversation

Adrian Beaumont, Honorary Associate, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.