Victorian government needs to be prepared to press 'pause button' on COVID roadmap, AMA says

The Victorian government must be willing to press the “pause button” on steps in the state’s roadmap out of lockdown to prevent overwhelming the health system, the state’s branch of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) says.

Last week, ahead of the announcement, the organisation which represents doctors and medical students labelled any move to ease restrictions before 80 per cent of people aged over 12 were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as “reckless”.

Victorian AMA president Roderick McRae said the organisation was supportive of the roadmap as long as authorities were prepared to respond as needed to prevent the health system from being overwhelmed.

He described the process of easing restrictions and trying to suppress spread of Delta as a “continuous balance”.

“It is a roadmap, it’s literally just that, and it needs to be monitored, perhaps twice a day, just to see how we’re going,” he said.

“AMA Victoria are very keen that the finger is very close to hovering over the pause button because nobody wants to go back to the hard lockdown.”

Burnet Institute modelling released as the roadmap was being outlined indicates that a peak in daily COVID-19 case numbers would occur in the last week of October, with the average number falling somewhere between 1,400 and 2,900.

The modelling shows that even if no restrictions were eased, a “moderate risk” of the health system’s capacity being exceeded remained.

More than 2,500 people being hospitalised with COVID-19 and more than 625 needing intensive care beds were used as markers of the health system’s capacity limits.

Under the scenario laid out in the roadmap, which grants incremental freedoms to Victorians in line with vaccination rates, the late October peak would result in between 1,200 and 2,500 people in hospital and between 250 and 550 people needing intensive care.

A second peak is expected to occur in mid-December.

Under the modelling, up to 2,202 deaths could occur by the end of December, but that figure dropped to 1,061 if testing was high and there was a 15 per cent reduction on the recent rate of non-household transmission.

‘Frightening’ numbers on the horizon

Dr McRae said people needed to remember that the figures presented were “phenomenal”.

“It’s absolutely frightening for anybody to see these sorts of numbers and to be sitting and contemplating thousands of illnesses and thousands of hospital systems,” he said.

“All of the hospital systems are strained today.”

It’s estimated 70 per cent of Victorians aged over 16 will be fully vaccinated by October 26, and 80 per cent by November 5.

Dr McRae said it was important to remember that even when those targets were met, there would still be many unvaccinated people, including those who were vulnerable.

He said opening up too rapidly over the coming weeks and months without being willing to intervene as needed could be dangerous.

“We all understand that this is a roadmap of a gentle gradient of opening up and it’s supported,” Dr McRae said.

“But it must be monitored and not adhered to for the pure sake of adhering to it.

“Nobody’s identified what the trigger is, when there’s too many ambulances parked outside the emergency department.

“When the emergency department can’t admit a patient into the general ward, when the general ward can’t escalate a patient into the intensive care unit, when the intensive care unit can’t discharge a patient into the ward so the next intensive care patient can come in.”

Dr McRae said he supported cautious steps that were being taken, like the decision to put three regional local government areas, including Geelong and the Surf Coast Shire, back into lockdown after cases emerged in those areas.

Burnet Institute deputy director Margaret Hellard said the modelling could change depending on people’s behaviour.

She said people getting vaccinated, continuing to get tested even once they were fully vaccinated and adhering to other health measures could lead to a more optimistic outlook.

She told ABC Radio Melbourne if the situation in the city’s north and west improved, that could bring the infection rate down.

“We’re hoping very much that our predictions will be more pessimistic than what actually happens if Victorians are able to get vaccinated and follow restrictions as much as possible,” she said.

Professor Hellard said the modelling was not “set in stone” and would be reviewed each week.

“It’s not set and forget, what’s predicted can be changed,” she said.

She said a key factor would be ensuring people continued to get tested if they were symptomatic, even if they had received the vaccine.

“The vaccine is fabulous … but it’s not perfect and you can still get infected if you’re vaccinated,” Professor Hellard said.

“If we can make sure people do that … then it’s really powerful and positive in terms of reducing the likelihood of us having such a high peak.

“Anything we can do to reduce that peak is highly effective and important in not stressing the health system.”

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