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Coronavirus cases spiked in Australia overnight, topping 163 cases.

Despite the worrying increase, public health experts say Australia is well-positioned to avoid a situation as severe as Italy or South Korea — but the rhetoric from the US may hamper our government’s messaging. 

Trump is trivialising quarantine

“The virus will not have a chance against us … No nation is more prepared or more resilient than the US,” President Donald Trump gloated in a national address yesterday. 

During the announcement, he framed the coronavirus as “foreign,” banning travel from 26 European countries for 30 days.

Trump’s denialism runs deep: he had previously called the virus a “hoax”; his advisers falsely claimed the virus had been contained despite CDC official Nancy Messonnier having said that getting the virus has become inevitable for many Americans; and in late January, he insisted US cases consisted of just “one person coming in from China”

The White House also overruled a US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) warning that elderly and physically fragile Americans be advised not to fly on commercial airlines. 

Professor Sharon Lewin, a leading infectious diseases expert at the Doherty Institute, told Crikey that Trump’s rhetoric is extremely dangerous because we need to be able to rely on those infected to take the risk seriously.

“It’s very easy to say I’ve just got a cold, or nobody will care, and trivialise it,” she said.

Deciding to self-isolate and self-quarantine had to be seen as a “partnership” between the public and health officials, she says.

“We don’t have a system like China. We can allow forced quarantine, but that’s not the best way to do it.” 

For a partnership to work, people need quality, factual communication. “We have to make sure we never stigmatise and never blame. We just need constant reassurance and good information.” 

US travellers now pose a risk

According to Lewin, one advantage we have in Australia is that we’ve been quick to test for the virus.

“We’re adapting our testing with high alerts for people returning from overseas … we’re casting the net wide,” she said. 

But in the US, flawed test kits and red tape have hampered efforts with officials having no way to map the spread of the virus.

“Normally the US is the rockstar of public health. They’ve been at the forefront of every outbreak over the past four decades,” she said. But this time, “the rollout of testing has been problematic.” 

While the Doherty Institute had a test up and running by January 24, the US needed the test to be approved by the FDA — meaning one wasn’t signed off until the first week of February. It was later found to be flawed. 

“By that time, we were doing hundreds of tests a day in Victoria alone,” Lewin said. “In the US, some states first diagnosed the virus in death — meaning it had been in the community for weeks.”

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US estimates just over 8000 people have been tested — less than what South Korea was capable of achieving in a day.  

The Australian government’s travel advice for the US hasn’t changed, despite the outbreak. Because of the lack of action within the US, Lewin says people who had travelled there now present a risk to Australia. 

The worst may be yet to come

Have we seen the worst of the coronavirus? Unlikely, according to Associate Professor Adam Kamradt-Scott, an expert in the spread and control of infectious diseases at the Centre for International Security Studies.

“When will the peak hit? How long is a piece of string?” he asked, adding that while the peak could be behind us, it’s more likely Australia will see an increase in cases.

One model has predicted Australia will see an increase in cases in April and May, with a peak in August — though Kamradt-Scott said this depended on action taken.

“At the moment what we have seen in Australia have been imported cases and limited transmission, not widespread human transmission. Our prospects are good that we will only continue to see limited cases,” he said.

“We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.” 

Peter Fray

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