Fears are growing that Melbourne’s lockdown could be extended beyond six weeks if Victoria’s coronavirus cases remain high.
The state recorded another 222 cases and 17 deaths on Tuesday – a significant drop from a record high of 725 cases on August 6.
Thirteen of the 17 new fatalities are linked to aged care facilities, and eight of those people were in their 90s, Premier Daniel Andrews confirmed.
Experts fear the daily figures are not falling fast enough despite the state’s extreme lockdown measures, which were introduced on July 30.
If coronavirus cases don’t drop as steeply as hoped, Victorians could face extended restrictions, which would be another blow to Australia’s economy.
Melbourne entered Stage 4 lockdown on August 2 and a curfew was introduced from 8pm until 5am. The rest of the state was subject to Stage 3 restrictions at 11.59pm on August 5.
Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely told news.com.au cases fell quickly in the week following Stage 4 lockdown. But figures have slowed in the weeks following, which he said was ‘odd’.
‘It’s still going down, which is good, but at this rate of progress we’ll be lucky if we are at less than 50 cases a day by the end of the six-week lockdown.’
Victoria’s case numbers have dropped to less than 300 in recent days, with a further 282 cases confirmed on Monday.
Mr Andrews confirmed on Tuesday there are 665 Victorians in hospital, 45 of those are in intensive care and 32 require a ventilator.
He said active cases within the aged care sector – and statewide – finally appeared to be decreasing, but pleaded with the public not to get complacent.
Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said he expected that number would continue to drop in the coming days and weeks.
‘222 is another good number for us today, the trend continues down as we expected, but we have seen an uptick on Wednesdays,’ he said during the press conference, warning that tomorrow’s case numbers might spike again.
‘I would hope that we’re in the 100s, not the 200s, next week, but it depends on the public.’
Current data suggests the reproductive rate of the virus is on the decline, meaning numbers should follow.
The rate at which the virus spreads is called the ‘reproductive number’ or R-0.
If the R-0 is at one, then R-1 means that every person with the virus spreads it to one other person.
Numbers above R-1 mean a virus will spread exponentially, but if the reproductive number falls below one then the virus will slowly fizzle out.
COVID-19 has a natural median reproductive number of R5.7, according to a study published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, which explains why it exploded all over Victoria.
Mr Sutton said on Tuesday that the latest data suggests it is currently at about R-0.86, and could potentially be even lower already.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison previously suggested the Stage 4 restrictions would cost the national economy between $7billion and $9billion in the September quarter.
Last week it was revealed more than one million Australians are out of work for the first time since records began, with the unemployment rate climbing slightly to 7.5 per cent.
The situation could get much worse, given the latest jobless figures do not reflect the impact of Melbourne’s stage 4 lockdowns.
Last week, medical officials expressed hope that the case numbers appeared to be on a slow but steady decline – while also warning the death rates likely hadn’t peaked yet.
Monday was the deadliest day in Australia’s fight against COVID-19 with 25 deaths recorded, surpassing the record figures set by Victoria last Wednesday, when 21 people died.
Mr Andrews confirmed 22 of the 25 deaths are associated to aged care facilities, making up 216 of the state’s 309 total deaths since the pandemic began.
The deadly respiratory virus has reached at least 120 care homes in the state, and there are 87 active cases among vulnerable people living in disability care homes.
Victorian authorities and medical experts have warned the death toll will likely continue to rise as a direct result of the high case numbers the embattled state identified weeks ago, particularly in the aged care sector.
‘This is a long way from over, and we’ve got to keep pushing forward every day,’ Mr Andrews told the public during his 50th consecutive daily press conference on Monday.
The ABC’s medical commentator Dr Norman Swan said the surging death toll could be directly attributed to the soaring case numbers the state experienced weeks ago, which peaked when 725 cases were identified on August 5.
‘What you’re seeing now with these deaths, tragically, is these high numbers that you saw over two weeks or so ago in Victoria,’ he said.
Victorian authorities had also warned deaths would continue to rise given the number of people in hospital with the virus.
There are currently 44 people in intensive care in Victoria, up from 40 on Sunday. Of those, 32 are on ventilators.
At least 2,000 cases are still active among aged care residents.
‘For so long as we have large numbers of people that are in hospital and gravely ill, then we will see people who sadly continue to die,’ Mr Andrews said.
‘Even if you are young, and otherwise unhealthy, you are not immune from this.’
Deakin University epidemiology chair Catherine Bennett made a similar observation, but was confident the death toll would soon drop off in accordance with the cases.
‘That will be the pattern this week, but hopefully it will be relatively short-lived,’ she told The Age.
‘Just as we saw cases peak last week, it will be this week we will probably see the peak in daily deaths.
‘The consequences of the previous infection hike is playing out in terms of the daily death counts.’
Metropolitan Melbourne has been under tough Stage 4 restrictions – including an 8pm curfew – while regional Victoria is under stage-three measures.
The lockdowns are in place until at least September 13 after Mr Andrews extended the State of Emergency and lockdown by four weeks.
‘We will beat this virus – and extending the State of Emergency ensures we have all the tools we need for the fight,’ he said on Sunday.
‘I thank every Victorian who is part of our massive team keeping our community safe – you can thank them too by following the rules, which will see us all get through the pandemic.’
Since 2 August, Victoria has also been in a State of Disaster, which can remain in place for up to one month, and may then be renewed.