Australia

Hospitals gear up as fears grow over dangerous virus surge

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Victoria could be headed for 1000 active coronavirus cases by the end of next week if surging new infections do not slow.

Hospitals are also gearing up for an increase in critical cases after the number of hospitalised swelled to 20 on Thursday, including four in intensive care.

With 415 active cases now present in Victoria — a tenfold increase since June 14 — the state’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said he was afraid of what may follow in the coming days.

“When you have got significant transmission, when you have got 70 odd cases every day, there is absolutely an expectation that some of those people will die,” Prof Sutton said.

“That is why it is incumbent on all of us to be minimising our interactions with others.”

Of the 77 new COVID-19 cases announced on Thursday none were among overseas returnees, although most were contained within the “hot zones” in Melbourne’s north already subjected to new lockdowns.

WHAT RESTRICTIONS MEAN FOR HOTSPOT RESIDENTS

Those outbreaks include a Roxburgh Park family which has 20 cases spread across at least eight households, and a Patterson Lakes/Lysterfield cluster which has grown to 10 cases.

On Thursday evening the AFL announced that a Marvel Stadium security contractor had tested positive to coronavirus.

The security contractor last worked during the day on Monday 29 June patrolling a stadium service entry.

Although he gained some comfort from an apparent stabilisation in Victoria’s COVID-19 infections, Prof Sutton warned the world was only a quarter way through a pandemic which could end up claiming 5-10 million lives globally.

In the immediate future, he said it may be frustrating for those living in hot postcodes to live under tighter restrictions, but all Victorians had to return to strict “stay at home” routines to prevent tragedies.

CHECKPOINT CRACKDOWN IN HOTSPOT POSTCODES

Drones, automatic number plate scanners and elite police units are being used to crack down on people leaving coronavirus hot spots without a good excuse, with more than 1000 officers flooding Melbourne’s lockdown suburbs.

Chief Commissioner Shane Patton warned Victoria Police would come down hard on those who did the wrong thing.

He said people would “have to have been living on Mars” to still be unaware of the lockdown restrictions.

“While we may have been very lenient of recent times, with this emergency we’re experiencing, with this threat to public health and the safety of the public, that leniency is dissipating day by day,” Mr Patton said.

“I can assure you we will now be issuing the majority of people who commit these breaches with infringements.

“I want to be absolutely crystal clear, for those who are selfish enough to disregard these warnings from the Chief Health Officer: the deliberate, obvious and blatant breaches, if they’re committing them we will be infringing them.”

Checkpoints have been set up on main routes in and out of lockdown suburbs, and officers are questioning motorists both entering and leaving.

Stage three restrictions are now in place across 36 Melbourne suburbs, meaning residents are only allowed to leave home for four essential reasons — food shopping, care or caregiving, exercise, and work or study.

Officers on Camp Rd in Broadmeadows were seen checking licence details of drivers and their reason for being on the road.

A handful of drivers had pre-prepared letters from employers.

Bus driver Yilmaz Erbas, 55, was pulled in for a check while on his way to work.

He said he wasn’t concerned by the restrictions and said they were a good way of keeping the community safe.

“I think it should be done on all the main roads such as Sydney Rd and Pascoe Vale Rd,” he said.

Matthew Jones, 21, works as a builder and was travelling through Broadmeadows after visiting a Bunnings nearby.

Mr Jones said it would be hard to police people coming and going from hotspot suburbs.

“It’s hit and miss I guess — it’s good in a way but you can’t control everyone and there’s so many ways to get in and out of suburbs,” Mr Jones said.

“I feel for businesses which have picked up and then now they have to close back down again. But we have to get through July, take it day by day.”

In the space of four hours, the Herald Sun saw hundreds of cars pulled over and questioned without a single fine issued for COVID-19 breaches.

But there were also concerns some people might be dodging police sites by using backstreets, or simply lying when pulled over.

Some people on social media alerted locals to checkpoint locations, with one person even boasting about giving officers a false reason for being out.

The Australian Lawyers ­Alliance called the police response “intimidating”.

Alliance national criminal justice spokesman Greg Barns SC said they were “concerned the residents of these 10 suburbs could be unfairly targeted or inappropriately harassed by police”.

“The purpose of the lockdown is to help residents to stay safe and reduce the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

“In this circumstance, education and harm minimisation is clearly more important that rigid application of the law.”

UNIONS CALL TO MAKE MASKS MANDATORY

Victoria’s public transport union has demanded all passengers be required to wear masks as the number of trips taken and coronavirus infections have risen across Melbourne.

The Rail, Tram and Bus Union on Thursday wrote to the Department Of Transport requesting an urgent meeting to enforce mandatory masks immediately.

It comes after Acting Chief Medical Officer said masks could be useful in containing the outbreak of COVID-19 in Victoria.

But RTBU state secretary Luba Grigorovitch said over time experts around the globe had supported the use of masks and urged for this to be taken up in Melbourne.

“If we want to be on top of the virus, we must implement preventive measures especially in areas of high congestion as we turn to living with the pandemic,” she said.

“Our members are putting their health and safety on the line every day.

“They deserve to have the protection of every available public health measure.”

In May, the Andrews Government issued a warning to Victorians after public transport patronage numbers began to grow above the safe levels to maintain social distancing.

A support package for Yarra Trams and Metro Trains has allowed the operators to run at a full timetable despite the majority of commuters continuing to work from home.

But Ms Grigorovitch said drivers and other operational staff were reporting more crowded services, sick passengers and travellers standing far too close to each other.

“The least that could be done is require that travellers prevent the spread of droplets,” she said. “Given we are having this second wave in Victoria we should at least give it a go.

“It is also important the economy snap back to action as soon as possible.

“Establishing this preventive measure as a mater of urgency would ensure Victoria is well placed going forward.

A government spokeswoman said the Chief Health Officer’s advice was that people do not need to wear face masks if they are well.

” If people are unwell, it is vital they stay at home,” he said.

“We’re keeping public transport as safe as possible by cleaning high touch surfaces regularly and deep-cleaning trains, trams and buses every night – and we ask passengers to help by travelling outside the peak wherever possible, practising good hygiene and keeping distant from other commuters.”

CLOUD OVER SCHOOLS AS KIDS SPREAD VIRUS

Families may be forced back into home learning for term 3 after the first signs of student-to-student coronavirus infections have been detected in Victorian schools.

As clusters at two coronavirus hot spot schools grew again yesterday it was revealed there have also been multiple cases of teacher-to-teacher transmission of COVID-19, raising doubts whether school will return in all areas after the current holidays.

Victoria’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, on Thursday confirmed the first cases of students spreading coronavirus to classmates had emerged, though the full extent of the transmissions were being investigated.

“There has been some student-to-student transmission and also teacher-to-teacher transmission at some schools,” Prof Sutton said.

“Some of them might be from the same household or might be linked outside the school setting.”

Another five coronavirus cases were linked on Thursday to Albanvale Primary School in Melbourne’s west — three students, a teacher and a close contact — and two more have been linked to a cluster at Al-Taqwa College in Truganina.

Two teachers at Ilim College campuses in Dallas and Glenroy have also tested positive. Both suburbs are among the 10 postcode hot spots that are now in stage 3 lockdown.

With 17 Victorian schools having been closed in recent weeks for deep cleaning following COVID-19 cases, Prof Sutton warned a return to learning-from-home arrangements was being examined.

“It will certainly be reviewed on a day-to-day basis,” Prof Sutton said.

“I will give as much notice as I possibly can around the resumption of school specific to the restricted postcodes.

“The expectation is schools will return, but I do want to see that we are turning transmission around and also that we don’t have such levels of community transmission with students becoming infected that our resourcing is all focused on response to cases in schools.”

While Victoria’s first surge of COVID-19 cases mirrored global evidence of children being much less likely to contract or transmit coronavirus, Prof Sutton said the increased level of community transmission now buffeting the state was painting a new picture.

He said testing in the pandemic’s early stages had been geared away from children, though the recent experiences and introduction of saliva testing were uncovering greater transmission.

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kieran.rooney@news.com.au

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