23 Mar 2020

People aren't getting the message: Infectious diseases expert

From Nine To Noon, 9:21 am on 23 March 2020

People are underestimating how quickly Covid-19 can escalate, David Hayman a professor of infectious disease ecology at Massey University says.

Professor Hayman has studied Ebola in bats and has worked on non-vaccine preventable rabies viruses.

Massey University Infectious Disease Research Centre director David Hayman

Photo: Supplied

He told Nine to Noon people have a false sense of security.

He said more extreme social distancing measures are needed so the public health system can catch up.

“I think there’s an excellent team giving the government advice and I really like the strategies like the alert levels, but the problem right now is that we have a real problem with uncertainty and those alert levels, seem to me to work really well when you’ve got excellent testing capabilities and when you know you can contact trace.

“Right now, because we don’t know that, we’re chasing every case that is identified and that’s putting enormous pressure on laboratories and on the people that are doing the contact tracing.”

We need to get ahead of the curve of a disease that spreads exponentially, he said.

“If you look at the guidelines for level 2, if everyone was doing them we might just be OK, we’re still uncertain about that because we don’t quite know what will happen around school transmission in New Zealand, but evidence from China suggests that school children do contribute to transmission.

“It’s very important that people listen to those messages around physical distancing, we must take those seriously because it’s not clear when people are infecting each with this infection.”

He worries that being at level 2 is giving the message that the situation is not critical.

“I believe one of the issues with having it at level 2 is that people may think actually it’s still not that bad, but what we do now will have such a huge impact in a week or two weeks’ time.

“And that’s why it’s so essential that we really listen to those physical distancing messages.”

The experience overseas is that the number of cases doubles every three days, he said.

“One of the things that is very frightening about this infection, and I believe that we should be frightened by this, is that doubling period is extraordinarily fast for an infection with such a high case fatality rate and also hospitalisation rate.

“So, you are effectively getting massive overloads on the health system in every country where there has been exponential growth – and there aren’t many countries where this infection has been present where there hasn’t been exponential growth.”

We can stop the spread, he said.

“If you wash your hands and you don’t have any contact with other people, you don’t get infected. It is pretty straight forward, and it’s been shown with many different infections.

“So, we can do everyone a favour; whether it’s the old in the community, the laboratory workers, the hospital workers by acting now.”

It is our social responsibility to physically distance, he said.

“I think we should be modelling good behaviour, but also calling people out if they’re not.

“We need to do that kindly and thoughtfully, but we really need to act now because otherwise we will be at the level 4.”