Contact tracing ‘within capacity’ as Victoria resists interstate offers of help

For our free coronavirus pandemic coverage, learn more here.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton insists Victoria has enough contact tracers to deal with the outbreak that has plunged Victoria into a snap lockdown, despite the number of close contacts rising to 15,000.

Victoria has so far not taken up an offer from other states and territories to send additional trained contact tracers to assist with the cluster that grew by four cases to 30 on the first day of a week-long statewide lockdown on Friday.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said interstate support on contact tracing was not necessary.Credit:Simon Schluter

“I’ve said to the team that the Commonwealth and other jurisdictions have made that offer, it’s an open offer, it’s continuing,” Professor Sutton. “So as soon as they need to, if they need to, they will do so.”

In the only request for external assistance, acting Premier James Merlino on Friday asked the federal government for 160 Australian Defence Force personnel. Health Minister Greg Hunt agreed to that request on Friday afternoon, saying the ADF personnel would help “to contain the outbreak and to protect Victorians”.

Medical students from Austin Health in Melbourne’s north-east were contacted on Thursday evening inviting them to take up paid work “in our public health contact tracing team” involving “calling people, data analysis, data entry and IT skills”.

On Friday Professor Sutton said the students would be helping local public health units “in a number of ways” – not just contact tracing – and warned that importing contact tracers from interstate would bring its own challenges.

ADF personnel will return to Victorian streets to doorknock positive cases and close contacts.Credit:Penny Stephens

“The contact tracing workforce is in the hundreds, if not 1000s, in Victoria, and … we don’t have a national inter-operable system of sharing contact tracing information across the country,” he said.

“It can take a team leader off their normal job to try and work through that process. It is a really integrated network of local public health units at the moment that’s working very well.”

ADF troops will be deployed to double the number of officials door-knocking positive cases and primary close contacts to ensure they are self-isolating, with fines up to about $5000 if they are not.

Of the 15,000 close contacts identified by Friday, 1652 were primary close contacts. COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said hundreds had already returned negative results with hundreds more awaiting their results.

When announcing the seven-day lockdown on Thursday, Mr Merlino said contact tracers were identifying the first, second and third rings of contacts within 24 hours – “faster than ever”.

He warned, however, that the Indian variant of COVID-19 spreading through Melbourne was moving even faster, “making people more infectious, more quickly” and necessitating a lockdown to limit the number of new contacts for positive cases.

Federal Coalition MPs have slammed the Victorian government for dragging its feet on introducing a uniform QR code check-in system, which was only made mandatory on Friday – eight months after NSW did so.

Liberal senator Jane Hume this week called the state’s contact tracing system “hopelessly inadequate” and on Friday Mr Weimar admitted one QR code system would help increase the number of people whose details would be easily available to contact tracers if there was an outbreak.

He said businesses were allowed to use their own technology when the state reopened last year but in recent weeks “we’ve become increasingly concerned at lower levels of compliance”.

“We’ve had to conclude that moving to one system was a more robust way of doing it,” Mr Weimar said.

One of Friday’s new cases contracted the virus at The Sporting Globe pub in Mordialloc and with multiple bars and restaurants on Victoria’s list of almost 130 exposure sites, Mr Weimar also conceded there were “a number of locations where we just don’t think we’ve captured all the people who were in those venues”.

Outside of QR code check-ins, the state’s contact tracing system has been overhauled since it lost control during last year’s second wave.

A new IT system together with the creation of five local public health units, similar to the NSW health department, has earned praise from experts for its handling of the outbreak that grew by four on Friday, 12 on Thursday and 10 on Wednesday.

La Trobe epidemiologist Hassan Vally said Victorians should take heart that contact tracing systems could handle higher capacity than last year.

“The systems in Victoria are completely different to where they were this time last year,” he told ABC Radio National. “A lot of lessons that have been learnt over the last 12 months.”

Doherty Institute director Sharon Lewin said the lockdown would give contact tracers time to get in touch with all those potentially exposed to the virus. With about15,000 people in quarantine, contact tracers could, Professor Lewin said, “actually get on top of these contacts and make sure they are at home and quarantined”.

Start your day informed

Our Morning Edition newsletter is a curated guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Get it delivered to your inbox.

Most Viewed in Politics

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article