What the experts are saying about the Victorian COVID-19 spike

Covid-19 testing in Broadmeadows, Melbourne. Source: AAP

The recent surge in new coronavirus cases in Victoria has alarmed many as Australia’s overall number of cases seemed to be dropping. So is this a second wave? Not all experts are on the same page.

The rate of new COVID-19 cases in Victoria has left many asking whether this is the second wave many feared would come at the beginning of the pandemic.  

So where do the experts sit when it comes to the spike in Victoria? Why is it happening there, and what does this mean for the rest of the country? 

What do experts think? Is this a second wave?

The term 'second wave' doesn't have a formal definition for infectious diseases, expert Professor Raina MacIntrye said, instead it comes down to a "subjective assessment" she explained. The new cases in Victoria came after the lockdown, which Prof MacIntrye explains was a period of suppression.

"As we resume interactions and contact with other people, the risk of infection will increase, everywhere in Australia," said Prof MacIntyre, the Head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW.

"This tells us there is a silent transmission. The scientific evidence from numerous studies shows an important role of the spread of COVID-19 from people who do not have symptoms."

Prof MacIntrye may be reluctant to use the term 'second wave' but other experts are not as gun shy.

"In terms of Australia's experience, this is evidence of a second wave in that 75 new cases in Victoria is similar to that experienced in the first wave in Victoria," said Professor Gerry Fitzgerald, a public health expert from QUT.

But Prof Fitzgerlad prefaces that we must keep the current outbreak in context to what's happening globally with COVID-19. He points to the US which on Friday discovered over 44,000 new cases, and Brazil recorded almost 47,000 on Saturday.

"Thus, while there is evidence of community transmission occurring in Victoria it is not as yet widespread," Prof Fitzgerald said.

Why is this happening in Victoria but not other states?

There's been fingers pointed at unconfirmed Eid parties and large family gatherings as the cause for the latest uptick in cases in Victoria.

However, Prof Fitzgerald can't point to a specific reason why the surge in new cases has arrived in Victoria as opposed to other states in Australia.

"Victoria instituted the same policies at the same time, if not earlier, in terms of restricted movement, social interaction and enhanced personal hygiene," he said.

"There has been considerable speculation in terms of social and behavioural issues or characteristics of Victorians which are speculative at best," he said.

There were "three distinct risk categories" for Victoria that Professor Mary-Louise McLaws has outlined: family clusters, quarantine hotel staff, and health providers. She also says this could happen in New South Wales.

"But what is particularly driving this is the interconnection between these three risk groups," said Prof McLaws, an epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales.

Prof McLaws explains that Australia being a country of migrants means authorities need to work proactively with communities who speak English as a second language, "who may not hear or read the messaging in English about the importance of responding to feeling unwell and keeping visitors to a minimum," she said.

Professor David Peterson says COVID-19 will exploit any weaknesses in the public health system.

"Victoria's weakness appears to have been "leakage" from quarantine, whereby quarantine hotel workers were not adequately trained in infection prevention and the quarantined travellers were not "cleared" prior to release," said Prof Paterson, a Director of the UQ Centre for Clinical Research.

Should states reconsider the reopening borders?

Prof McLaws isn't opposed to reopening the border between states but says: "reopening the borders except to the hotspots."

Not everyone is in favour of reopening borders, at least not yet. Prof Fitzgerald says the current outbreak in Victoria will concern other states and territories where community transmission is especially low.

"The only new cases in those states are amongst those people who have acquired the disease overseas and have returned to Australia," he said.

"It would be in no one's interest for undetected disease amongst people in Victoria to spread to other states and cause further community-based outbreaks in those states."

Calls to download COVID-Safe App

Australia has dealt better with the coronavirus than many countries, as seen with growing cases in the US and Brazil. However, Prof MacIntrye says this isn't the time to be in denial and ignore public health advice.

"We need a social contract between the government and the people - where in exchange for the freedom to do the things we want to do, in return we maintain physical distancing, wear a mask and download the COVID-Safe app," she said.

The government’s app has come under fire in recent days with the revelation that no close contacts of those who’ve tested positive for coronavirus have been found via the app. 

According to Prof MacIntyre, “The downloads of the app are nowhere near enough for it to be effective, and this is a critical time during which it could make the difference between losing control and not.”

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.