Covid 19 coronavirus: Expert fears Victoria’s plan to reopen as cases peak will cause spike in deaths and hospitalisation

Victoria reached a devastating milestone on Friday, confirming 1838 new Covid infections and five deaths.

That marks the highest number of new infections recorded in Australia throughout the entire pandemic, and smashes the state’s previous record of 1763 infections, set on Tuesday.

In fact, Victoria is experiencing an alarming surge in Covid infections at the moment – but for now, the state government is sticking to its guns when it comes to its reopening plan.

According to Premier Daniel Andrews, Victoria is on track to meet its reopening date of October 26, when the state is expected to hit its 70 per cent double dose vaccination rate.

Even more freedoms will be rolled out once Victoria reaches 80 per cent, which is expected to be on November 5.

But as cases continue to soar, there are growing fears that move could be disastrous.

'People will die'

According to Melbourne University clinical epidemiologist Professor Nancy Baxter, it was “pretty unprecedented” to push ahead with reopening when case numbers as well as hospital and ICU admissions were peaking.

Prof Baxter told the state was now in “uncharted territory”, and added she believed it was a “terrible time” to reopen.

“It’s not something that has been done elsewhere … we’ve decided that it’s normal and the right thing to do in Australia, but that’s not what other jurisdictions have done,” she said.

Prof Baxter said Australians were now “entirely fixated” with our vaccination rates, and that Victoria seemed to be failing to consider “what’s happening on the ground” in the health system, which she described as “problematic”.

She said the hospital system was already under strain and could be “overwhelmed” upon reopening, which “isn’t a sensible thing” to be moving towards.

She also said the message had become confused, given the population has always been told the purpose of lockdowns was to keep numbers down before reopening, which now seemed to be abandoned.

“A lot more people will die if we open up with high numbers than if we open up with low numbers,” Prof Baxter said.

“In terms of the plan for opening up, an increase in mobility is going to drive up cases, when we’re at a high number of cases already.

“I don’t know what the numbers will be (at the point of reopening) – I anticipate they will still be high, even if we have reached the peak and started to come down – but while numbers are important, the main thing is what’s happening in hospitals and ICU and ambulances.

“Everyone is thinking vaccinations will totally change that relationship, and it will to an extent … but there will be no change in the connection between cases and hospitalisation in the unvaccinated.”

Prof Baxter said NSW had also planned to reopen as cases were peaking, but that the state had “got lucky” with cases falling just in the nick of time. NSW recorded 646 new Covid-19 cases yesterday and 568 cases on Thursday, down from a peak of 1603 cases in mid-September.

“Gladys basically said, ‘we are opening up at the peak … and don’t worry, that’s the plan’. That was an incredible statement to me and it failed to recognise that it was a disaster,” she said.

“Now NSW has beat the model and numbers are coming down – it would be good if they came down further, but at least there’s more wriggle room now than there was at the peak.

“But it looks like here we’re opening up and we may not even have reached the peak. To not base what we’re going to do on numbers and what is happening on the ground could be the most colossal own goal in history.”

Prof Baxter said she was “extremely worried” about Victoria’s future.

“For heaven’s sake, don’t just base it on a number, base it on what’s happening. What are you trying to prevent? People dying and getting sick unnecessarily, and also preventing people dying unnecessarily from other things because hospitals are chock-a-block,” she said.

“It might work out – I don’t know – but … we are going to get more patients because it will drive up cases and I’m extremely worried.

“We could potentially see some shocking things.”

Prof Baxter said NSW’s willingness to reopen even as cases were peaking had raised expectations across the whole country.

“There was some talk of Victoria waiting until 90 per cent double vaccination (to reopen) but that has been completely axed because expectations were set by NSW and it has been really unfortunate as it has affected people’s willingness to stay locked down,” she said, adding there had been a recent increase in people moving about and potentially breaching lockdown rules.

“It’s sad – I’m not saying the Victorian government has been perfect, it has made mistakes, but if we have to delay reopening, everyone will blame Dan, when instead they should blame themselves because people are not obeying the rules and regulations,” she said.

She said she was “distraught” when Victoria announced it was abandoning its zero Covid plan at such a critical time, and urged the public to think about the consequences.

“We’re talking about real lives – real people will end up in hospital and real people are going to die,” she said.

'No choice'

However, others believe Victoria now has little choice but to push ahead with its reopening plan, despite the surge is case numbers.

And in fact, Deakin University chair of epidemiology Catherine Bennett believes reopening could potentially even help the situation.

Prof Bennett told lockdown fatigue meant some people now seemed to be flouting the rules by meeting up in private homes – the riskiest setting – and said “controlled” meetings in restaurants, pubs and cafes might actually slow down the spread.

She said that compliance problem – illustrated by Melbourne’s three major lockdown protests – showed authorities now had little choice but to ease restrictions, describing the situation as a “balancing act”.

“You can have a lockdown on paper but then there’s reality, and is there really a choice to keep going for longer if it’s not working now?” she said.

“Allowing people to do more, in more controlled settings, might give better protection.

“It’s a balancing act between taking pressure of those people who follow the rules versus those who are breaking them, and I think there’s no choice now.”

Prof Bennett said Victoria would hit 3000 cases a day if it continued on its current trajectory – but said at the moment, the number of people in hospital was around a third of the figure predicted by the Burnet Institute’s modelling, which meant the system was currently coping.

“If we open up, we will have more cases, but if hospitalisations are below what was predicted by October 25, then while it’s still not desirable, it will still be possible to open up,” she said.

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