States sitting on virus ‘tinderbox’
Experts are warning that states like Western Australia and Queensland have the potential to be a tinderbox for the coronavirus due to being "virgin" ground for the disease.
In particular, fears have been raised around the crisis surrounding a cargo ship berthed off the West Australian coast in Port Hedland, where 17 crew members have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Ten are now in hotel quarantine in Port Hedland after being taken off the ship.
On Monday, WA recorded more new coronavirus infections than Victoria - the first time a state has beat Victoria's numbers since June 6.
After 171 days without community transmission, experts fear complacency has developed among the population and the state's more relaxed restrictions could see any infection spread quickly.
Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely told news.com.au the state was a "tinderbox" that could explode if the coronavirus got into the community.
"They have a virgin population, a completely susceptible population and they are at the maximum allowed in terms of opening up," he said. "If the virus gets in it will very easily take off."
The comments echo ABC health expert Dr Norman Swan, who warned "the fuel is on the ground ready for the fire in Western Australia, Queensland and other states".
"They have been lulled into a false sense of security. Testing rates are low, and that's the problem," he said.
Testing in Western Australia has dropped to an average of 1710 per day among its population of 2.6 million.
Western Australia has the lowest levels of coronavirus testing in Australia. Its per capita testing rate is only 15.59 per cent, compared to 33 per cent in NSW and 40.38 per cent in Victoria.
However, Curtin University modelling expert Associate Professor Nick Golding said testing people randomly if they didn't have symptoms wouldn't be effective.
"It's a difficult situation, you don't want to impose full restrictions when there is no virus in the community and I think the decisions around who should get tested are very sensible," he told news.com.au.
He also noted that high testing rates in Victoria weren't sufficient to identify community transmission from its first hotel quarantine cases.
"It looked like there were several transmission events from hotel quarantine that weren't detected, which is why cases got quite far and were widespread before they were picked up even though Victoria had high testing rates at the time," Prof Golding told news.com.au.
"There's no obvious solution other than to generally be prepared, especially around those imported cases, which is what it looks the government is doing."
Prof Golding said it was possible that unexplained cases could pop up in Western Australia, like they had in New Zealand.
"The rate at which people are coming into contact with other people - who they are seeing each day - is high enough that if there was disease transmission then it would spread very quickly," he said.
But said the seriousness of any "spillover" event of imported cases into the community, would depend on who was infected.
"If the person infected is someone who works from home most of the time anyway they may not have many contacts."
The danger is if the virus began spreading among workers who had contact with a lot of people, which is what happened in Victoria once the cases got into the healthcare and aged care systems.
AMA president Omar Khorshid told The West Australian that a coronavirus outbreak in Port Hedland would have a "catastrophic outcome" and prove to be a "death sentence" for some Indigenous communities.
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"If the virus gets out into the Port Hedland community, particularly into the Indigenous community in Port Hedland, we would expect a catastrophic outcome that would be worse than what we have seen in Melbourne with severe illness and death resulting in an outbreak," Dr Khorshid said.
He said there were many vulnerable people around the area living with chronic diseases, in particular a large Indigenous population for whom an outbreak of COVID would be a death sentence.
"WA stands very well-prepared because we've had the wake-up call that happened earlier this year. However, our population has become complacent," Dr Khorshid said.
Earlier this year, 81 of the state's 544 cases were linked to the ship Artania, which was docked at Fremantle for more than three weeks, after dozens of sick passengers and crew were found to have the coronavirus.
A ban on the arrival of cruise ships in Western Australia was recently extended with Premier Mark McGowan concerned it would be devastating for the state.
On Tuesday, Mr McGowan said the state's restrictions including its hard border had contributed to its success in keeping community transmission under control.
"It's allowed us to open up our economy faster than anywhere else, creating jobs at a faster rate in Western Australia than anywhere else in Australia, potentially the world," he said.
Mr McGowan also announced that Victorians would be allowed back in the state from October 5 and the exemptions for NSW visitors would be expanded.
People will still be required to undergo 14 days of quarantine but do not have to do this in a hotel. They will also be encouraged to download the new G2G Now app so that police can check on them remotely rather than paying them a visit.
Western Australia is now in phase 4 of its road map but a tentative date has been set for the rollout of phase 5 from October 24.
At the moment, all events except music festivals are allowed. Gatherings are only limited by the 2sq m rule and patrons no longer have to be seated in venues such as nightclubs, bars and pubs. Venues are also not required to record people's details.
Prof Blakely said Western Australia would have to be prepared to act very quickly if the virus did start spreading in the community and should even consider adopting New Zealand's tactic of a short, sharp lockdown.
"Going to stage 3 immediately like New Zealand would be astute for somewhere like Western Australia due to its low levels of the virus," Prof Blakely said.
The lockdown could be brought in for just a short period to allow the state's contact tracing system to be fully activated before there was too much community spread.
Prof Blakely warned that states like Western Australia could not go back to the old way of living, even if virus cases remained low.
"They still need to be cautious now until there is a vaccine, they'd be mad not to," he said.
Associate Professor Golding said the main restrictions still in place in Western Australia were around mass gatherings and the hard border with other states.
"Businesses are open and people are meeting up with as many people as they want," he said.
"It's pretty nice if you were already in the state, but the main issue is for people who can't get back in."
But he says experts are not taking the virus-free state for granted.
"I think anyone thinking about coronavirus is almost perpetually concerned but it makes sense to relax things and allow businesses to open as long as there is not transmission.
"It's a matter of being prepared and having plans in place if it does happen."
Originally published as States sitting on virus 'tinderbox'