Nowhere is this more evident than in New South Wales which on Tuesday recorded zero new coronavirus transmissions for the first time since the epidemic began. Six weeks ago, it saw more than 200 new infections in a single day and was on a trajectory similar to Italy and the UK.
However, listen carefully and you will have noticed neither NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian nor Prime Minister Scott Morrison sounded overexcited about this feat.
That’s because both are of the view that zero cases, or a small number, is unlikely to last. And that means we may have to reassess what is – and what isn’t – a “second wave” of infections.
“There will still be cases, it won’t be eradicated,” Mr Morrison said last week.
“The goal is not to bring it down to zero. It is to ensure that we can keep on top if, that if there are outbreaks, we can shut them down, that when people contract it we can isolate them, and we can ensure that the health system remains in a position to be able to respond.”
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On Monday night on the ABC’s Q&A, Premier Gladys Berejiklian said every eased restriction would – not could – lead to extra cases.
“Our strategy moving forward is to find the healthy balance, the new normal, where we have manageable number of cases but yet we’re able to fire up our economy and keep jobs and get new jobs,” she said.
Ms Berejiklian didn’t say what a “manageable” number was. But it looks like the price we’ll have to pay for that new normal could be around 100 new cases Australia-wide per week.
Australian National University infectious diseases expert Peter Collignon said zero new cases didn’t mean zero new people had contracted coronavirus.
“Just because you haven’t seen any new cases that doesn’t mean there are still not in the community.
“There are low levels of the infection out there. Even now we are missing some because people with minimal symptoms won’t get tested and if you give it the opportunity it will come back and bite you,” he told news.com.au.
“We should be happy with what we’ve achieved but it’s only if we go six weeks without one case then I’ll feel more comfortable. And still people might be getting it but they won’t even notice.”
TAKE THE PANIC OUT OF THE VIRUS NUMBERS
This weekend NSW residents will be able to meet up outside in groups of 10 – so long as they socially distance. It’s very possible that during one of those meetings, with friends they’ve not seen face-to-face for months, someone will catch COVID-19.
“But we need to ease up the rules, we can’t be hermits for years,” Professor Collignon said.
He added Australia needed to “take some of the panic” out of coronavirus messaging and numbers.
A template for Australia was likely Taiwan or South Korea, the two nations most widely credited with having the most effective response to the pandemic.
“However, if you look at the places that have been successful, most of them are not getting no cases at all,” Prof Collignon said.
Taiwan continued to record a handful of cases up to last week, China has seen a clutch of new Wuhan cases weeks after the last infections while after weeks of low numbers South Korea saw a spike to 101 fresh cases one day earlier this week.
‘THE NEW NORMAL’ NUMBER OF NEW CASES
Many of South Korea’s new cases relate to a single bar in the capital Seoul. But, until a vaccine is introduced, outbreaks are something we might just have to get used to, particularly as Australia is going into winter when virus can spread more easily.
“I expect cases will flare up such as at the Melbourne meat works which successfully mimics winter with those people close together for longer periods of time,” said Prof Collignon.
He added that despite all the advice not too, in the coming months some people will likely still go to work with a sniffle and a few of those will be harbouring the virus.
“The new normal in Australia is going to be about 10 cases a day or maybe up to 100 cases a week – and it may go up in winter. We can handle more than 100 cases a week” he said.
“That’s still a problem as we know maybe one in 100 who get it may die depending on your age, but it’s a manageable problem if we’re not going to become hermits.
“In a bad year we could see 1400 people die of influenza and the fact is some people do get sick and die.”
The massive ramp up of healthcare capacity and tracking and tracing capabilities, as well as our new hygiene and social distancing habits, should help in slowing any spread. Ideally, this should mean outbreaks are jumped on quickly and fatalities kept as low as possible, all the time allowing Australians to live relatively normal lives.
Testing sewage for COVID-19 is also useful as faeces can contain the virus and is an indicator of how much of is in circulation locally.
But when does a manageable number of cases become a “second wave”?
Prof Collignon said only if cases jumped significantly above the 100 a week mark should Australia be worried.
Both Premier Berejiklian and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said they would be ready to impose another lockdown should a second wave hit.
“If I got advice … that we no longer had control, things had got to a point where we were going to see a significant spike in cases and our hospital system fundamentally overrun, then of course we’d have to reintroduce some of these sanctions,” Mr Andrews told Q&A.
Ms Berejiklian said the virus would be with us for some time yet, and we may just have to learn to live with it.
“The secret to our success will not be by having zero case numbers. We’ll see an increase in cases.
“But that’s OK because we need to have a healthy balance of keeping the virus under control and making sure we keep the jobs and open up our economy.”