12 Jul 2021

NSW death highlights threat and need for speedy vaccination - expert

11:27 am on 12 July 2021

The death of a woman infected with Covid-19 in New South Wales highlights the importance of speedy vaccination, a public health expert is warning.

A woman waits for a ferry at Circular Quay near Sydney Harbour Bridge during lockdown in Sydney yesterday.

A woman waits for a ferry at Circular Quay near Sydney Harbour Bridge during lockdown in Sydney. Photo: AFP

The Australian state recorded 77 new cases of the coronavirus yesterday, and its first Covid-19 related death in 10 months.

Twenty-two of those cases had no known source of infection and 33 of those cases were out in the community while sick. Authorities expect case numbers today to exceed 100.

Victorian health authorities have ordered the effective closure of the state's border with New South Wales.

The Department of Health says with case numbers continuing to increase in that state, Victorian officials are concerned about the risk of transmission beyond current red zones in Greater Sydney and its surrounds.

Australia's Deakin University public health expert Professor Catherine Bennett told Morning Report the woman's death was a timely reminder of the importance of vaccination.

The woman was not vaccinated, although the reasons why remain unclear.

Perceptions of risk associated with the illness in Australia had varied from other countries and the NSW situation was a wake-up call, she said.

"It takes having the virus at your doorstep for people to realise, not only could I get infected but I am likely to get seriously ill, particularly if I am elderly and that does shift."

Bennett said shortening the period between first and second vaccination shots within the state was important because immediate protection was now more important that gaining any longer term immunity from that gap in time.

The overall vaccination rate across Australian is currently about 8.4 percent, with 28 percent having received one shot, she said.

The vaccine coverage in the broader community outside of care homes wasn't enough to offer inadequate protection.

"What they found in southwestern Sydney where this community transmission is concentrated at the moment, is even people over 70 the rate is much lower than the rest of the country," she said.

"It's an area where there's only been 50 percent of people with one dose. So that is a concern."

She said authorities now faced the challenge of significant numbers of people unaware of being infectious who were out visiting places like supermarkets and petrol stations.

Many places of interest identified during lockdown were associated with essential services.

"The problem is that they've got cases in the community that haven't come forward quickly and then we've got to go upstream to find their source and they are finding these cases, most of which they are saying were five or six days old.

"That means people out in the community during their infectious period and they've got enough cases now that it means that you go to your local shops in certain parts of Sydney and your chances now are real that someone may be infectious and doesn't even know it."

Two weeks of restrictions had failed to dampen infection rates and Bennett said figures suggested the lockdown message of stay at home wasn't being strictly understood by extended family living across multiple households in the city.

"It looks mostly driven by household-to-household contacts and this is part of Sydney were there are large extended families across multiple households and it looks like the message didn't really get through that stay at home means actually stay at your home, your physical home...

"So, a lot of work was being put into working with the community to try to help people understand where the risk really is."

The Delta Variant's increased infectiousness was playing a role in the spread of the virus in New South Wales and meant there was no room for error in contact tracing and measures to isolate those infected.

"There's no forgiveness. You miss a case in the community and the chances are now that will lead to another chain of transmission that will appear somewhere else and that's exactly what happened in western Sydney," she said.

Earlier, Covid-19 modeller Michael Plank told First Up Sydney needed a more strict lockdown to combat rising case numbers.

University of Canterbury professor, Michael Plank

Photo: Supplied.

Plank, a professor at University of Canterbury's School of Mathematics and Statistics, said it could be at least several weeks before the outbreak can be contained.

He said New South Wales had a more relaxed lockdown compared with what New Zealand did last year and restrictions needed to be increased.

"It seems like they really need to pull out all the stops now with this Delta variant spreading. It's still increasing, so going to contactless only as we do here in New Zealand when we go to alert-level three seems like it's going to be necessary."

Plank said the lockdowns that worked for older variants of Covid-19, would not work against the now dominant Delta strain.

"It's around twice as infectious as the strains of Covid we were dealing with last year," he said. "So measures that would have worked previously with the original strain of Covid were just not quite enough now.

"They're still one step behind the virus and they need to do everything they can to catch up and be one step ahead."

He said the risk of the Delta variant coming into New Zealand from other Australian states was relatively new, given strict state border controls in operation.

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