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Overnight spike in Victorian cases another hard COVID-19 lesson

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Getting vaccinated is the top priority for all of us. Despite this, however, it is now clear that even at relatively high rates of population coverage, vaccines are not enough on their own to keep COVID from having a significant impact. For example, both Israel and Singapore have among the highest vaccination rates in the world; however, both countries are experiencing their most severe waves since the pandemic began. Both countries have had to reintroduce mandated masks and other restrictions to control the outbreaks.

So, what can be done to minimise and hopefully avoid altogether lockdown restrictions as we move to a higher vaccine coverage future? The answer is to commit wholeheartedly to a “vaccines plus” strategy.

The “plus” includes a range of less-disruptive measures such as a superior mask strategy, strong mitigation of airborne transmission with defined ventilation/air filtration approaches and, importantly, ongoing capacity to test, trace, isolate and quarantine those infected with the virus. A cornerstone of all of this working well is to keep numbers low, likely no more than somewhere in the hundreds of cases per day – the tracing system depends on this. We also must continue to innovate in testing regimes. The introduction of do-it-yourself style rapid antigen testing is one such innovation Australia will likely soon have to grapple with.

These latest high numbers are a hard lesson for Victoria in just how quickly the trajectory of the epidemic can go badly awry. And these are not just numbers of course, there will be many distressing human stories come from these cases let alone all those that will be seeded from these events.

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The key lesson is that Victoria must hold its nerve with cautious easing restrictions. It needs to continue to accelerate vaccination to very high levels – supply and delivery barriers simply must be overcome – while at the same time plotting an aggressive “plus” strategy, the tone of which was set a week or so ago with a bold policy to accelerate safe opening of schools; one that included the ground-breaking purchase of 51,000 air filtration units.

We all must play our part in recognising there is no easy way out of this. The end is in sight, but we can’t shortcut our way to a safe future.

Brendan Crabb is chief executive of the Burnet Institute. Mike Toole is a medical epidemiologist at the Burnet Institute.

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