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How Sick Are We?

On Tuesday the Government released modelling, developed by the Doherty Institute, which was used to inform early decisions by the National Cabinet. The modelling was based on data derived from overseas. The worst case scenario showed that without intervention to enforce social isolation, the health system would be overwhelmed with 35,000 intensive care patients a day when the infection peaked.

The relevance of this modelling to the Australian situation is tenuous and the Government has asked for new modelling based on Australian data. Professor Jodie McVernon of the Doherty Institute made the point, on ABC media on Wednesday, that the rapid increase in coronavirus in Australia had been predominantly due to infections contracted overseas. So far the rate of local transmission of the disease has not been determined and this is the real indicator of how sick Australia is.

Professor McVernon was at pains to stress that the first set of models was highly theoretical. Nevertheless it has already caused a reaction among some health workers who believed that it reflected the real situation in Australia. The scenarios outlined in the modelling were certainly pretty scary.

According to the material released: “The initial modelling shows a scenario of an uncontrolled outbreak. In that scenario, peak daily Intensive Care Unit (ICU) bed demand is 35,000, which would greatly exceed Australia’s expanded capacity of 7,000 ICU beds.

"With isolation and quarantine, demand is reduced to 17,000 ICU beds at its peak, still well above expanded capacity. With isolation, quarantine and social isolation daily demand is reduced to below 5,000.”

The Doherty Institute now has data from over 6,000 cases and 200,000 tests. Tests are being extended to cover people who have symptoms connected to Covid 19 even if they haven’t had contact with travelers or someone with disease. These tests are focused on virus hot spots. The Prime Minister has called for a range of scenarios to be modelled by next week based on the Australian data.

At the press conference on Tuesday, the Chief Medical Adviser, Professor Brendan Murphy said National Cabinet had asked its advisers, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, to produce a range of scenarios. “The good thing is that we can do that now in a position of relative calm,” he said.

Currently, the strategy was to identify, control and isolate all cases.

“That may be the long-term strategy. But we have to look at all of those potential options. There is no clear path.

"Unlike pandemic influenza, where the strategy was to control and contain until the vaccine came, because we knew the vaccine would come, we don’t know if and when a vaccine will come with this virus. If it does, that’s a beautiful way out. So, we have to look at a range of different potential scenarios. … But there is no single right answer.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison added to Professor Murphy’s answer, stressing the National Cabinet “has to also consider the ability to actually continue to run the country under such a scenario”.

He said “the economic lifeline” of measures being provided had “a finite life”.

Professor Murphy said we cannot take our foot off the brake. He said “the thing that worries us most of all is the more than 500 people who have acquired this virus from someone in the community that doesn’t know they’ve had it.

"That means that there are people walking around in our communities who can be transmitting this virus without knowing they’ve had it. That is why we cannot relax what we’ve been doing” or “"it could all come undone”.

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