There were 270 new cases of the disease announced on Tuesday, and Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, warned that many people recently diagnosed with coronavirus in new outbreaks were now beginning to fall sick.
“There are 26 patients in intensive care, an increase of nine since yesterday,” Professor Sutton said. “So that’s a measure of the fact we’re going into a phase where a lot of our current cases will be deteriorating.”
Data supplied by the Department of Health and Human Services on coronavirus patients in Melbourne ICUs shows that while the largest group of patients are in their 60s and 70s – 14 are in this age bracket – the virus has also left some younger people seriously ill.
A man in his 30s, four people in their 40s, five people in their 50s and a man and woman in their 80s are also in intensive care.
Victoria has about 660 intensive care beds and capacity to open up hundreds more within a short period if required.
However, specialists say a relatively small number of new coronavirus admissions each day could have a big impact, because patients typically take a long time to recover enough to be discharged.
The average ICU stay for Australian coronavirus patients receiving invasive ventilation during March was 17 days.
Associate Professor Forbes McGain, an intensive care specialist at Western Health, said if there were five new coronavirus patients entering intensive care every day, the total could climb to up to 70 patients within two weeks, depending on how many recovered or died.
“Don’t forgot everyone spends two weeks in intensive care on average,” he said. “Everyone is watching the numbers really closely.”
Data released by DHHS has shed light on the scale of coronavirus outbreaks in Victoria’s nursing homes, where 86 cases have been identified in 20 facilities.
At Menarock Life aged care facility in Essendon, which has the largest nursing home cluster, 15 staff and 13 residents have been infected.
A number of other homes are dealing with significant outbreaks, including Estia Ardeer (13 residents and three staff) and Glendale Aged Care in Werribee, where two residents, 10 staff and one household contact of an employee have been infected.
Professor Sutton has warned the state’s surge of coronavirus cases would result in at least 200 people requiring hospital care within the next fortnight.
“We have over 1800 active cases in Victoria,” he said. “That’s a really significant number of people with coronavirus, and it does mean that in the next fortnight we’re going to see a number of people who will require hospital.”
With nine days of triple-digit growth in new infections, there has been much speculation and questions about the possibility of the government introducing harsher rules for Victorians.
Professor Sutton said elevating Melbourne and Mitchell Shire to stage four restrictions – stricter than those Victoria has experienced so far in the pandemic – remained an option if case numbers didn’t decrease, though he refused to specify what measures that might include.
“[Tuesday] is not as high as our biggest single day [of 288 last Friday], but we haven’t turned the corner yet,” Professor Sutton said.
“I hope to see that this week, but there are no guarantees. Again, we have to rely on everyone doing the right thing in order to drive numbers down.”
A Victorian government spokeswoman said on Tuesday afternoon health advice remained that stage four restrictions were not necessary at this point and restrictions would not be escalated on Wednesday.
When asked about implementing further restrictions, Premier Daniel Andrews said there were “options available”, but would not provide further detail about what they might be.
“I wouldn’t want to be alarming people … I won’t speculate on all of those but there are other options available to us,” he said.
Professor Catherine Bennett, the chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, said any evidence that flaws in the stage-three rules were contributing to the spread would probably trigger harsher restrictions.
Professor Bennett said this might include closures of businesses that were still allowed to operate, such as department stores, if they were implicated in outbreaks.
But she said if the virus was spreading it was because people were flouting current public health advice.
“It doesn’t matter if you are on stage three or stage four,” Professor Bennett said. “Stage three should be enough if people are doing the right thing.
“It’s really how you reinforce, rather than [bringing in tougher rules] and hoping that it’s going to magically trickle down.”
Professor Bennett said hotspot areas could also be targeted again with stricter restrictions, or new rules or greater testing could be applied to places known to be particularly dangerous for coronavirus spread, including meatworks and nursing homes.
Just 28 of Tuesday’s new cases are connected to known outbreaks, and 242 remain under investigation.
More than 270 residents of public housing towers in North Melbourne, Flemington and Carlton have now tested positive to the disease, while 147 cases have been linked to Al-Taqwa College.
Outbreaks continue at a number of hospitals, including Brunswick Private Hospital, where there are 14 cases.
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Aisha Dow reports on health for The Age and is a former city reporter.
Michael is a state political reporter for The Age.