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Australia Should we be locked down? Experts split on hardline COVID-19 measures

22:20  15 march  2020
22:20  15 march  2020 Source:   theage.com.au

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Coronavirus. © Getty Coronavirus. Children should stay home from school and people should say goodbye to their grandparents for at least six months, according to a chorus of doctors who say urgent action needs to be taken to avoid thousands of preventable deaths.

But public health experts are split on the merits of a coronavirus lockdown, with some warning the economic risks of doing so were higher than the health risks and the lockdown of schools could exacerbate the strain on the health system if medical professionals needed to stay home to look after their children.

The number of reported cases nationally more than tripled in the week to Sunday from 80 cases to 279, but there are concerns the actual number could be much higher due to a lag in testing. In NSW alone, there were 22 new confirmed cases in the 24 hours to Sunday, bringing the total to 134.

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The networking group Business for Doctors said at the weekend it was the "almost unanimous" opinion of their 27,500 members that Australians were unprepared for a disaster that had already arrived and it was too late to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The group's founder, April Armstrong, a Western Australian GP, said that 10 days ago it took just 48 hours for virus test results to be returned but the time had since spun out to a week.

"Doctors are putting families in isolation now," Dr Armstrong said. "We are taking our children out of school now. We're telling all our family and friends to stay at home and the reason we're telling them to stay at home is that trajectory [of COVID-19 cases] is going to be really steep."

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In a widely distributed Facebook post, she advised her friends and family to teach their loved ones to wash their hands correctly, stand 1?? metres away from other people in public, help the elderly to self-isolate and keep children home from school on Monday and Tuesday to account for the lag in reported cases.

"Go visit your parents and grandparents - for many of us it will be the last time we see them," she wrote. "We need to stay away for six months or more."

Medical Journal of Australia editor-in-chief Nick Talley called for the government to impose stricter social-distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus.

"It is very hard to see the curve flattening out with what we're doing. It's community transmission and it's fairly widespread," Professor Talley said.

"Really ramping up now, in my view and based on the evidence available, will save lives. I don't think the measures announced today are enough."

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Dan Suan, a staff immunologist at Westmead Hospital in Sydney's inner west, also warned his Facebook followers that Australia had only a narrow window of opportunity to flatten the curve of new infections, recommending total social isolation, complete interpersonal distancing and massively increased testing.

Not all experts agree.

Locking down the country indefinitely and asking Australians to stay home would stop the spread of the virus, but it would also kill the economy - which the federal government has just spent billions propping up.

Coronavirus. © Getty Coronavirus. At this stage, pausing the economy does not make sense given it is not clear if there is sustained community transmission, said Dr Trent Yarwood, an infectious diseases physician based at the University of Queensland.

"The economic risks are there, but the potential health benefits are much less," he said.

"The most important message: if people are sick, they should stay home. If everyone did that, 100 per cent of the time, transmission would be very easy to get on top of."

Associate Professor Julian Rait, president of the Australian Medical Association's Victorian chapter, agreed. Campaigns calling for people to lock themselves down, like the widely circulating online "Stay The F--k At Home" push, were "probably a bit drastic".

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"There may well be a time for that," Professor Rait said. "But this is a staged approach - we agree with the Chief Medical Officer at this stage about the advice. We completely feel confident in it."

One measure some are calling for - pre-emptive school closures - can slow the spread of an influenza pandemic, studies show. They cut spread of the virus by up to 50 per cent and delay the peak of the epidemic, effectively "flattening the curve" of new cases.

That has led to a call from Australian Medical Association WA president Andrew Miller to close schools and universities.

But as Prime Minister Scott Morrison alluded to on Sunday, such a move has huge implications because almost half of parents in the economy would need to leave work to care for their children.

"A COVID-19 vaccine likely 12-18 months away, at least," University of Sydney public health expert Professor Julie Leask wrote online.

"So how long would a closure remain for?"

At Microsoft News Australia we've partnered with the giving platform Benevity to raise funds for UNICEF: Donate now and help health workers in the battle against the novel coronavirus.

Coronavirus Health Information Line:
Call 1800 020 080 if you are seeking information on novel coronavirus. The line operates Monday–Friday from 8am to 8pm, Saturdays from 8am to 5pm, and Sundays from 9am to 5pm.

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