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Coronavirus contact tracing shows COVID-19 problems in Victoria, NSW and Queensland

It seems every time daily case numbers appear to drop, it’s not long before Melburnians get stung by a dramatic new number.

Thursday’s 723 new infections were a particularly steep incline on the cruel rollercoaster ride.

A single day doesn’t tell us much about the state’s trajectory, but over the past week Victoria has averaged more than 400 new infections every day.

Three states are now battling local transmission, and each of them is discovering limitations with contact tracing.

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Victoria

Tracing close contacts is no easy task when you record more than 700 cases in a single day.

The strain it creates on the system can be clearly seen by the fact that there are more than 3,500 cases where the infection source is still being investigated.

Some of them were first discovered more than a fortnight ago.

A massive number of investigations were closed on Thursday and 280 infections were classified as having an unknown source.

That’s by far the biggest increase in community transmissions recorded in the state.

But those cases relate to infections first found days ago, so it is hard to discern the dynamics of the pandemic right now, in particular, whether community transmission is increasing or decreasing.

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth said the effect of the mandatory mask rules should become noticeable over the next week.

“I would anticipate this is going to bounce up and down for a few days before we see a trend,” Dr Coatsworth told the ABC.

Infections are also increasing outside Melbourne, and the upward trend in regional Victoria is clearly concerning to authorities.

Outside Greater Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire, the state posted a record 61 cases yesterday.

Most of those remain in the Colac Otway and Geelong regions and neighbouring councils, the same places now coming under new restrictions.

New South Wales

So far, New South Wales has managed to trace cases more successfully than Victoria had been in the early stages of its second wave.

But as always, continued success is not guaranteed.

The number of unknown-source infections reported each day has stayed below two since mid-May — until Thursday, when six cases were reported as being under investigation.

They may be linked back to known clusters in the coming days.

Drive-through coronavirus testing in Liverpool western Sydney.
Six cases of unknown-source infections were reported in NSW on Thursday.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Thursday also brought signs of symptomless spread in Sydney, after a prisoner arrested on the weekend tested positive despite not presenting as sick.

If that person had not been arrested, we may never have learnt about his infection.

These are the cases that contact tracing will likely miss, and it doesn’t take many symptomless carriers of the virus to push the state’s case numbers upward.

There is also another region to watch: sewage testing in Perisher has found samples of the virus in the region.

Precisely how much virus and how recently it was shed is unknown, but NSW Health was concerned enough to add it to the list of regions in which residents should be on particular alert for symptoms.

Queensland

Queensland has shown us how the entire contact tracing system relies on public goodwill and cooperation.

The initial refusal of one positive case to share their movements over the previous week led the state’s chief health officer to warn all residents across the large region to be on alert for symptoms.

A train stops at an empty station with no one on the platform
Public transport users in Brisbane appear to be more cautious compared to those in Adelaide and Perth.(ABC News: Jessica van Vonderen)

They are now cooperating with health authorities and police, but the delays could become important as public health officials race to prevent community transmission in the state.

Queenslanders know what life is like without community transmission, and they want to keep it that way.

It could be a tough battle.

As is the case in much of the country, the current conditions in the community would not seemingly present much of a challenge to SARS-CoV-2.

Movement data from Apple, measuring route requests with its Maps app, suggest residents of Brisbane are moving about more freely than both Sydneysiders and Melburnians.

Public transport patronage seems to be dropping in Sydney, amid the increased virus uncertainty and State Government requests for non-essential travel to be limited.

There has not been a dip in patronage in other capital cities, although passengers in Brisbane appear more cautious than those in Adelaide or Perth.

Modelling by the Doherty Institute suggests that at the start of the month, Queenslanders were in contact with more than eight people outside their household each day on average, almost twice as many as they were at the peak of the pandemic.

The modelling also found that adherence to the 1.5 metre rule was probably below 40 per cent in the state.

Similar conditions were found in almost every state, showing the challenge all states will face in a similar situation.


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