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Thank you, Victoria, your sacrifices have not been in vain

Stephen Warrillow, the director of intensive care at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital said while he’d love to say hard-working doctors and nurses had saved the day, the real credit lay with the community at large.

If Victoria hadn’t endured its longest lockdown, more people would have died preventable deaths, of COVID but also of other things.

Dr Stephen Warrillow says hospitals and ICUs in Melbourne are gearing up for new cases.

Dr Stephen Warrillow says hospitals and ICUs in Melbourne are gearing up for new cases.Credit:Arsineh Houspian

“I guess it’s easy to forget what happened in northern Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States,” said Associate Professor Warrillow.

“We would have our own particular version of the situation here in Victoria. Intensive care would have absolutely been full of COVID and we would have struggled to manage anything else.”

Crucially (and this is perhaps the main point) Melbourne’s 110-plus days in lockdown in 2020 also bought Victoria and the rest of the country valuable time for vaccination.

This is probably best illustrated by NSW’s second wave, which is now much larger than Victoria’s 2020 outbreak but has led to far fewer deaths because by the time it took hold a large proportion of the older population had received at least one vaccination dose.

About 1 in 220 people diagnosed with COVID in NSW since June have died, well below the usual death rate from the disease. Compare that to Victoria last year, when by the end of the second wave about 1 in 25 people had died. The virus hasn’t got any less deadly, we’ve just had time to largely ring-fence our nursing homes with vaccinations.

In recent months, there has been an emerging narrative that we just need to get on with “living with COVID”. But here’s a reality check. Even as NSW might be held up as the way forward, it’s clear those in Sydney and many other NSW communities aren’t doing much living in the way the term is intended. They are in lockdown with the virus. Hospitals are stretched. The “middle ground” scenario is a furphy, for now.

James Trauer, the head of the epidemiological modelling unit at Monash University, doesn’t believe there is a country in the world that’s been able to live safely alongside the Delta strain of coronavirus without a very high level of vaccinations.

He pointed to Vietnam which had previously been hailed as a COVID success story, but is now reporting hundreds of deaths a day with just a fraction of the population fully vaccinated.

This week Melbourne’s intensive care units have been dusting off their surge plans and reconfiguring spaces to make room for new COVID patients. Like all of us, the staff are exhausted.

But, again, they will be relying on the Victorian community. They need us all to get vaccinated. Unfortunately, they also need us to stay in lockdown for a little longer.

As epidemiologist James McCaw explained a few weeks ago, shooting for “COVID Zero” and trying to reduce coronavirus case numbers look pretty much the same.

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Associate Professor Trauer said he doesn’t expect non-essential stores, cafes and bars to reopen until next month.

The Premier has insisted that some restrictions will have to remain until 70 per cent of the adult population is fully vaccinated, to prevent rising cases overwhelming the hospital system. That level of vaccination is expected to be reached in late October.

By then many of us will be carrying pandemic scars that may never heal. We should also know our sacrifices haven’t been in vain.

We’ve saved thousands of lives. We’ve made it safer for other states to enjoy freedoms and better economies.

We bought time for the entire nation to vaccinate the most vulnerable and make a good start on the rest. There are people alive today that wouldn’t have been, if it wasn’t for the actions of us all.

So thank you Victoria, for everything.

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