In a once-in-a-century move (literally, the last time was 1919), Australia completely sealed off a popular state border to help curb a second wave of Covid-19 and instituted a six-week lockdown in the Melbourne area.
That was a few weeks ago. Since then, cases have continued to climb, and leading politicians have suggested that the lockdowns could be extended.
But despite the national anxiety, several public health experts told me they’re optimistic that the government’s policies will cause cases to fall in the coming days. They told me the situation is not quite as bad as it may seem, and would have been much worse without government intervention.
Australia, without question, crushed its first coronavirus outbreak. From April through June, the number of new cases per day rarely exceeded 20, down from the 300 to 400 cases seen per day in March. But in July, cases began to spike again, causing an outbreak that has quickly outpaced the first.
To help control the current outbreak, the government closed down the border between the states of Victoria, the hardest-hit area, and New South Wales on July 8, and imposed a six-week lockdown in Melbourne. But on Thursday, three weeks into lockdown, Victoria reported an all-time high of 723 new cases and 13 deaths.
The BBC reports that the high is a 36 percent increase from the previous peak — which was reported on Monday. Before Thursday’s huge spike, the case numbers had dipped on Tuesday and Wednesday.
To be clear, experts told me it could be much worse, and it’s a promising sign that cases haven’t risen exponentially, which could have been possible with a highly infectious disease like Covid-19.
And to put it in some global perspective, even Australia’s second wave is almost nothing compared to many other countries, most notably the United States and its more than 4.4 million cases. Or even to most of the individual US states. States with flattened curves — New Jersey, for example — are seeing case numbers comparable to Australia’s, lingering within the realm of about 300 to 500 new cases every day. So the “highs” Australia is seeing right now are basically what some of America’s more well-off states are seeing on a good day.
Despite the promising signs, though, there are still hundreds of people contracting Covid-19 every day in Australia, and the second major outbreak of infections has, in terms of numbers, quickly surpassed the first.
Masks have been mandatory in Melbourne since last week, and they will be mandatory everywhere in Victoria on August 2, so the effects of that policy on case numbers may not be known for weeks. Mandatory masking could be crucial for controlling the virus.
To defeat the outbreak, some health experts told me they think the country should employ a more forceful, New Zealand-type approach, but some told me they are optimistic that cases will begin to fall soon anyway.
A brief history of Australia’s initial coronavirus success
Three weeks ago, I talked to some epidemiologists about how Australia managed to control its first coronavirus outbreak. There were a few key reasons — most importantly, the government took the pandemic seriously from the beginning and listened to the advice of health officials.
Australia first tackled the virus with a ban on travelers from high-risk areas in February, as most cases from the first outbreak were travelers returning to Australia. That, and Australia’s lack of land borders with other countries, made it easier to identify who was infected or at risk.
Australia’s borders were closed to non-citizens on March 19, and later that month, public gathering places like movie theaters, bars, and schools were closed and social distancing rules were imposed.
The country’s biggest misstep with the first outbreak, University of South Australia biostatistics professor Adrian Esterman told me, was the docking of a cruise ship in March with infected passengers on board. Hundreds of cases could be traced back to the Ruby Princess cruise ship, where passengers that were clearly sick left the ship without being tested, dispersing around the country.
The government’s proactive policies largely worked, and the numbers of new cases plunged to around 10 to 20 cases per day in April. Reopening began in May, with the intent of safely reopening the economy fully by July.
To date, Australia has recorded 16,303 confirmed coronavirus cases and 190 deaths.
Why Australia’s second outbreak is different
The big difference between this current outbreak and the March outbreak is that the current spread of the virus is driven mainly by community transmission, Hassan Vally, a professor of public health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, told me.
Community transmission occurs when people who haven’t been overseas recently or who haven’t been in close contact with confirmed positive cases are infected, so the cause of infection is unclear.
It’s suspected that this outbreak began because of management failures at quarantine hotels, where people who fly into Australia must stay for two weeks under mandatory quarantine. The BBC reports that improperly trained private security forces are facing the blame, including allegations of rule-breaking — like sharing cigarette lighters and having sex with quarantined travelers.
From the hotels, the virus spread to low-income communities with large immigrant populations in Melbourne, Esterman told me. He said the government also didn’t spend enough time communicating with these non-English-speaking communities about the importance of mask-wearing and social distancing, leaving them vulnerable.
Community transmission is also having a devastating impact on nursing homes. The Guardian reports that as of Tuesday, 80 of Victoria’s 400 private nursing homes are facing outbreaks, with a total of 764 active cases among residents and staff.
“This second surge is totally different,” Vally said. “This is mainly true community transmission, and this is a much more difficult and serious and challenging situation. It’s going to take a lot more work to bring it under control, which is why we’re back in lockdown.”
What can be done, and why the rising case numbers aren’t cause for alarm
At first glance, the fact that new infections just hit an all-time high for Australia may be unsettling. And, of course, hundreds of people contracting Covid-19 every day is not a good thing. But experts told me the border closure and lockdowns have been effective in stabilizing Australia’s case numbers.
“If we go back to the very earliest conversations about Covid, the discussion was all about flattening the curve. And that’s kind of what we’re seeing, is that the curve has gone flat,” Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz, an epidemiologist at the University of Wollongong, told me. “It’s not increasing or decreasing. It’s just the same number of cases every day.”
“Flattening the curve” refers to slowing the rate of infection so health care systems’ capacity doesn’t become overwhelmed.
Meyerowitz-Katz also told me that daily case counts are a misleading metric because of delays in recording test results and the random variation of who gets tested and when. So although Australia’s cases spiked Thursday, that doesn’t mean it’s an accurate picture of the extent of the outbreak.
In fact, the days between Monday’s spike — which was, at the time, a national record — and Thursday’s peak saw a marked decrease in the number of new cases, as Victoria reported 295 new coronavirus diagnoses on Wednesday. Vally told me he is optimistic that cases will continue to come down over the next few days and weeks as the lockdowns continue and the effects of the mask mandates become known.
Esterman told me that if the government wants to bring the case numbers in Victoria down to the numbers seen in other Australian states, which are largely unaffected by the current outbreak, more restrictions on businesses should be implemented.
“I’m optimistic that the situation in Melbourne will improve slightly, but I can’t see going back down to where all the other states and territories are, unless they go into what we call stage four restrictions, which is basically what New Zealand did, and that is all places of employment are shut, apart from essential services like supermarkets, health services, etc.,” Esterman told me.
Stage four restrictions would likely involve compulsory mask-wearing (which is already in place in the Melbourne area and will soon be implemented across Victoria) and a stricter definition of which businesses are allowed to open.
“If they did that for just a couple of weeks, it would really control it,” Esterman said.
He also said that mask-wearing should be encouraged in the Sydney area to prevent a major outbreak there, since cases in New South Wales — the state Sydney is in — are lingering in the teens and could, he said, easily explode.
The resurgence in Melbourne shows that the coronavirus is relentless, and, as Vally told me, it can exploit any opportunity it can get ahold of to start spreading again. And until there is a vaccine, controlling it will continue to be a worldwide challenge.
“What’s happening in Melbourne could equally happen in any other place in Australia, and obviously it can happen and it is happening in other places around the world where they’ve pretty much felt they’ve got things under control,” Vally said. “This is going to be the world we live in for the next many months, until, hopefully, we find a vaccine.”