There are currently 4775 active cases across Victoria, putting enormous strain on the state’s contact tracing team.
The Department of Health and Human Services directed testing doctors on Thursday not to carry out asymptomatic testing without a text message or letter from DHHS identifying the person as a close contact of a confirmed case, despite the ongoing delays.
Federal government sources claim that when defence personnel arrived in Melbourne in mid July, close contacts of 1000 people diagnosed with COVID-19 had not been reached by Victorian health authorities, but this is disputed by Victorian government sources.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that contact tracing failures early in Victoria’s outbreak had hampered efforts to bring case numbers under control.
“They weren’t tracing all the contacts when Victoria had 10, 15, 20 confirmed cases,” the source said.
A Victorian government spokeswoman said contact was being made with all positive cases “within 24 hours of receiving the notification” and that close contacts were “identified as part of the interview process. Once these are entered into the system, initial contact is automatically made with the close contacts via a text message within 24 hours.”
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Tuesday that Victorian health authorities must achieve the contact tracing standard of “every case, every day” and that Australian Defence Force personnel were providing assistance.
Of 1463 ADF personnel deployed in Victoria, Mr Hunt said, 28 teams were “on the ground following up cases where the public health units have been unable … to make contact with either positive cases or contacts of those positive cases.”
UNSW infectious diseases expert Professor Raina MacIntyre said the pandemic was at risk of getting out of control in Victoria, where there have been hundreds of cases confirmed each day.
For every confirmed case of coronavirus, there are between 10 to 25 close contacts, Professor MacIntyre said, so when the state reported more than 500 cases, there would have been 12,500 people to trace.
“The contacts are those at highest risk for getting infected and then transmitting to others,” Professor MacIntyre said.
“If we cannot trace all contacts rapidly and put them in quarantine, the epidemic will become out of control.”
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Sumeyya is a state political reporter for The Age.