Australia

As NSW charts a path out of lockdown, experts warn vaccine targets aren’t everything

New South Wales looks to be on track to hit its 80 per cent vaccination milestone in less than 100 days, but independent epidemiologists are warning against reopening Greater Sydney prematurely.

Analysis of seven-day averages for the nation’s vaccination rollout by online tracking project COVIDLive suggests NSW will achieve its 80 per cent target for full vaccinations by mid-November.

Authorities have indicated state lockdown measures could begin to ease once at least 50 per cent of people have been vaccinated, with greater freedoms rolled out after hitting the 70 and 80 per cent benchmarks respectively.

But experts fear the prospect of Sydneysiders living in a largely open fashion by this point could be reckless.

What’s the timeline for easing restrictions in NSW?

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian says authorities are laying the groundwork for easing restrictions for when the state reaches six million doses.

She said this week restrictions could begin to ease for certain parts of the community by the end of August.

“What the end of August means is if we have six million jabs, it gives us opportunities to think about how we can ease some restrictions that we currently have for people who live in communities with lower case numbers but high rates of vaccination,” she told reporters on Wednesday.

“There are significant communities in Greater Sydney that are in that situation.”

Federal government data on regional vaccination rates to 1 August released last week showed that Sydney’s affluent northern suburbs had seen the highest first-dose take-up rate in NSW, while rates in the city’s COVID-struck south-west were among the lowest.

According to COVIDLive, more than 4.6 million doses have been administered across NSW to date.

The website’s data shows the target of six million could be reached by mid-September, though the rising vaccination rate over the past month suggests it could even be closer to late August or early September.

By 25 September, 80 per cent of Australians aged 16 and over are expected to have received their first dose, according to Doherty Institute projections.

By 2 November, 70 per cent of Australians are expected to be fully vaccinated, and 80 per cent by 19 November.

Experts sound alarm over restrictions timeline

Epidemiologists have warned easing restrictions and ushering in what authorities have called “a new normal” after reaching the 80 per cent target is problematic while cases remain so high. 

NSW recorded 345 new local COVID-19 cases and two deaths on Thursday.

Mary-Louise McLaws, a UNSW professor and advisor to the World Health Organization, said it’s dangerous and inaccurate to assume being vaccinated fully eradicates the possibility of virus transmission.

“The problem with this, first of all, is that it assumes that anybody who has been vaccinated is going to be 100 per cent protected from a vaccine breakthrough,” she told SBS News.

In other words, this target still leaves 20 per cent of the state’s population – around 1.5 million people – at risk of catching the virus without any protection.

“This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Prof McLaws said.

She said there needs to be a greater focus on other methods of curbing transmission. 

“One way of stopping [the spread] is taking the testing to the workplace, where people who can’t get time off because they’re at work, providing essential services, can get tested there,” she said.

Under current rules, at-risk workers living or residing in the Canterbury-Bankstown, Fairfield or Cumberland local government areas of Sydney are required to get tested for COVID-19 every three days.

Prof McLaws said expecting workers to get tested every 72 hours is “not enough”, and that it should be a daily occurrence for those most at risk of catching the virus.

She said shared places such as corridors and rubbish rooms in workplaces can present additional risks, and that mask-wearing in these spaces should be mandated.

“As soon as you leave your front door, they’re all problem spaces.”

Professor Nancy Baxter, head of the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne, agreed there needs to be a renewed focus on workplace transmission.

She said authorities should prioritise vaccinations at work sites, and also trial funding better-quality masks for essential workers.

“Surgical masks are gappy, they don’t have the best filtration. So why not invest a little money in that?” she told SBS News.

“Even if you save only one day of lockdown, it’s more than enough money you’re going to save by putting everyone in N95 masks for the duration of this.”

‘Authorities have to be upfront’

Prof McLaws has also called for messaging around COVID-19 restrictions to be clearer.

She criticised NSW Health’s decision to “slowly ramp up” its restrictions starting from June, when the outbreak first hit the state, rather than enforcing a strict all-encompassing lockdown early on.

She described the “incremental” nature of the lockdown’s restrictions as “confusing”.

“Australians are very good at doing what they’re asked to do, but that has to be very, very upfront, where there is no latitude for interpretation,” she said.

Prof Baxter said it would have been helpful to clamp down on non-essential work from the get-go.

“This incremental addition of measures has allowed COVID to really be seeded in the population, and it’s going to take a long time to get it under control, even if you do harsher measures, because it’s spread too far at that point,” she said.

Earlier this week, NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant conceded “different decisions could have been made” in terms of the initial response to the Delta outbreak.

Dr Chant said the government was not fully aware of the extent of the outbreak stemming from a “superspreader” party in West Hoxton in June when it waited to lock down parts of the state.

The party was the catalyst for the decision to impose the first lockdown.

Prof McLaws noted Australia was given “plenty of warning” about the Delta strain and said authorities should be teaching the public about everything new they hear.

“It’s not like this is a brand-new experience in Australia – we were given warnings by the UK, who had very much told the rest of the world that this was a problem,” she said.

“We knew that this is a virus that produces 1,600 times more viral load in the respiratory tract than ever before. None of this is new to the authorities.

“What we’re not doing is teaching the public about everything that the authorities are hearing. The government should be educating the people about the spread of different strains in different countries, and what this means, and teach them about things like [the dangers of] shared spaces.”

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