Could Melbourne’s Outbreak Reach Other Australian Cities?

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stage 4 restrictions melbourne outbreak coronavirus cases second wave
Image: Getty Images

Melbourne’s recent coronavirus outbreak serves as an important reminder that Australia’s fight with contagious virus is not yet over. The questions many are considering is whether the outbreak will spread nationally or if it could happen to other cities too as restrictions ease elsewhere. The reality is it’s hard to say with certainty.

July was meant to mark the end of tough coronavirus restrictions for many Australians around the country. As pubs and restaurants began to re-open doors and weekend trips were once again possible, coronavirus cases crept higher in the country’s second-largest capital city. Throughout June, Melbourne struggled with a few minor outbreaks but overall, it wasn’t deemed catastrophic and easing restrictions pressed on.

But July hasn’t been easy on Melburnians. Those minor outbreaks were quickly overshadowed by far larger and widespread ones and the state is now dealing with nearly 1,000 active cases — a third of its total cases since the start of the pandemic.

So, how did it go so wrong for Melbourne?

Small outbreaks early on might have contributed to the larger ones

Rob Moss, an epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne, told Lifehacker Australia outbreaks can happen when the virus is present in the population, especially when there are asymptomatic cases.

“When we began easing some of the restrictions we were still seeing small numbers of new cases,” Dr Moss told Lifehacker Australia over email.

“In that situation, when there are some people who are capable of passing on the infection, it’s possible that a single event can produce a large number of new cases. Especially since people can pass this on before they themselves develop symptoms, so it can happen without anyone being aware that they were infected.”

Adding to that, Dr Moss said, were anecdotes of lapses in infection control over lax hotel quarantine rules and people who’d tested positive but still went to family gatherings.

“While it’s easy to demonise these people, the current outbreak could have occurred without them. It only takes a few chance events, such as the cluster at Cedar Meats, to substantially increase the risk of a sustained outbreak,” Dr Moss said.

Making responsible decisions is key

How the outbreak happened is in the past for now but it can provide lessons for other cities as restrictions ease. The obvious answers include maintaining physical distancing measures, good personal hygiene and wearing face masks where possible.

Avoiding risky situations too would help to limit the chance of further outbreaks in other cities.

“Avoiding large shopping centres and other places where there are large numbers of people will help. But that may be unavoidable for some people, especially if that’s where they need to go to buy things like groceries,” Dr Moss said, conceding it was tough for some without alternative options.

It’s a matter of weighing up the risk. While easing restrictions might make something possible again — like going to a crowded restaurant — it doesn’t mean everything go back to normal again. Without a vaccine, coronavirus could be lurking undetected in asymptomatic cases within the population.

The key is responsibility and heeding official medical advice.

“I have seen people walking around wearing masks that cover their mouths but not their noses, or even pulled down below their chin so they’re more like a neckwarmer, which I don’t understand at all,” Dr Moss said.

“Hearing that there were people trying to escape metropolitan Melbourne before the lockdown came into effect was disappointing — there may be individual situations where it was an appropriate response, but it’s hard not to interpret it as being motivated by selfishness.”

Containing the spread is crucial to avoid a repeat

The best way to stop Melbourne’s outbreak from spreading to other regions of Australia is to place unfortunate travel restrictions.

“This depends on how much travel there is between the affected region and other regions, how much of this travel is ‘essential’, how thoroughly we can deter people from unnecessary travel, and whether there are adequate controls on the people who do travel,” Dr Moss said.

“It only takes a single infected traveller for there to be a risk of new infections but with the border measures and travel restrictions we have in place I think we have a very good chance of containing this outbreak within Victoria.”

But with outbreaks being more apparent in larger, crowded capital cities, Dr Moss said those state border restrictions can be tough on those living in regional areas near the border where the virus isn’t immediately apparent. It’s a tough compromise, given the virus can reappear anywhere as long as asymptomatic cases are around.

“Unless we achieve total eradication and keep our borders closed, there’ll always be a chance that an infected person who hasn’t yet experienced symptoms could cross the border and unknowingly pass on the infection,” Dr Moss said.

While we patiently await a working vaccine, it’s likely restrictions will continue to work like an elastic band. As cases decline, life opens back up. As cases increase, life gets put back on hold.

The other option is eradication, like New Zealand planned, but it would require restrictions staying in place until no new cases recorded for some time — something many would prefer to avoid.

With restrictions having a big impact on society outside of coronavirus spread — mental health, the economy and general quality of life — it’s a tough decision for politicians to make.

Comments

  • Sadly, i think its inevitable especially the states in close to Victoria, all it takes is one dickhead going down a poorly patrolled back road.

    SA already had to frogmarch 2 idiots back to Vic who at first got turned back at the border and then thought it was a good idea to try a backwoods dirt road and got bogged.

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