Australia 'Less restrictive future lockdowns' rely on more people getting vaccinated for COVID-19, experts say

23:11  10 june  2021
23:11  10 june  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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Australia is unlikely to achieve herd immunity because of the current level of vaccine hesitancy and the highly infectious nature of new COVID variants, new modelling shows.

The study, developed by the Burnet Institute and published today, shows people will still need to follow public health directions (such as lockdowns, social distancing and mask wearing), even if they're fully vaccinated.

Burnet deputy director Margaret Hellard told Coronacast even if vaccine coverage was as high as 80 per cent (a target she described as "challenging") life wouldn't go back to normal — yet.

"You can't just say, 'we're vaccinated, let it rip, guys'," she said.

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"There will be occasions where will need to be aware that we need to be tested and we'd still need restrictions."

So, as restrictions start to ease in Melbourne following yet another COVID-19 lockdown, we asked the experts: what will prevent Australian cities from shutting down every time there is a new case?

And how long will we have to wait before we can feel confident booking interstate travel?

Will we see another Australian lockdown?

Statistically, yes.

Burnet Institute epidemiologist Mike Toole said lockdowns would keep happening until the vaccination rate improved and quarantine leaks were plugged.

"Since November, we've had on average of one quarantine leak every 11 days, and that's continuing," he said.

"They'll keep happening."

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According to the Department of Health, more than 5.2 million vaccine doses have been administered across Australia to date.

Australia has ordered extra doses of Pfizer and Moderna (which is yet to be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration), but the bulk of these vaccines won't arrive until the end of this year.

With this time frame in mind, plus the 12-week wait between dose one and dose two of AstraZeneca, Professor Toole said it was inevitable there would be more lockdowns before the bulk of Australians were fully vaccinated.

"In that time [of four or five months], we'll have at least 10 more quarantine leaks and lockdowns and border closures," he said.

Murdoch University professor of immunology Cassandra Berry said the higher Australia's vaccination rate was, the less restrictive future lockdowns were likely to be.

"As the vaccine rollout continues and more of us are fully vaccinated, we will still see cases, but I don't think we'll have to go into those strict lockdown procedures anymore," she said.

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What do we need to do to avoid restrictions?

Epidemiologist Emma Miller of Flinders University said preventing future lockdowns would take high vaccination coverage, high compliance with the rules, and good contact tracing.

And, she said, Australia needed to do more to help other countries tackle viral spread, which was the only way to prevent importing the virus and stop quarantine leaks altogether.

"We're only going to be able to open up and behave normally if everybody is doing all the same thing around the world," she said.

Guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recently been updated to say fully vaccinated people no longer need to quarantine if they have been exposed to the virus, but have no symptoms.

Fully vaccinated people in America also don't have to self-isolate after travelling internationally or interstate.

It's a different situation in Australia, with no exceptions for those who have had both doses of the vaccine.

Professor Berry theorised these rules may be updated as time went on, as long as contact tracing remained strong and people practiced social distancing.

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"I'm not convinced everybody can see the benefit of being vaccinated [in Australia]," she said.

"Fully vaccinated people don't need to quarantine [in the US].

"So, if people [in Australia] got that message, if they were fully vaccinated, they may still have their freedom and not need to go into isolation."

But Professor Hellard said public health measures, including lockdowns, would remain a key line of defence, even with high vaccination rates.

What can we do now?

All four experts agreed the most important thing for Australians to do was roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated as soon as they're eligible.

Dr Miller was optimistic that as more and more people were vaccinated, the chance of lockdowns would decrease as long as people listened to the health advice.

But for now, Australians will have to take it one day at a time.

"There is no magic silver bullet that's going to take care of this; everything is going to depend on vaccination, on getting as high levels as we can achieve," Dr Miller said.

Professor Hellard said although vaccines wouldn't stop every outbreak, they would reduce the likelihood of outbreaks, save lives and reduce the need for restrictions.

"Everyone should get vaccinated as soon as possible," she said.

"The more people are vaccinated the better, but it doesn't mean we're footloose and fancy free."

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This is interesting!