WA must be “very careful” and “keep its foot on the accelerator” now that it has passed the milestone of 100 days since any unknown local transmission of COVID-19, as there is a “great danger of complacency that comes with having done so well,” warns Professor Jon Watson.
Professor Watson, Executive Dean of The University of Western Australia Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, said it should be made very clear to all West Australians that the virus had not “gone away”, with the Victorian outbreak a glaring example of what could happen “in the blink of an eye”.
“I think face mask wearing will become part of our Australian culture, just as in our hospitals for healthcare workers gowns, gloves and face shields will become part of our everyday life.”Professor Jon Watson
“WA is not through this yet,” Professor Watson said. “West Australians still have to be as careful as possible and keep on doing everything that we have asked them to do since February – wash hands, social distance, stay home when unwell and get tested.
“And it never hurts to have some face masks stored and ready in the back cupboard – even in WA.
“If you are a healthy West Australian, under 70 and you do not have a problem with your immune system or a chronic disease, then my advice is you do not need to wear a face mask at the moment. However, if you are in one of those groups then you should have a stash of masks ready at hand and think about wearing them when out and about in WA, particularly if you are going into an enclosed space with lots of people.”
With the National Cabinet confirming in recent days that Australia would continue to focus on a COVID-19 suppression policy rather than moving to attempt to eliminate coronavirus, and ongoing widespread community transmission in Victoria and New South Wales, Professor Watson said it was important Australians accepted the need to wear face masks, even in states such as WA where COVID-19 infections were low and face masks were not mandated.
“I think face mask wearing will become part of our Australian culture, just as in our hospitals for healthcare workers gowns, gloves and face shields will become part of our everyday life,” Professor Watson said.
“In WA, the response from Premier Mark McGowan has been reasonable and proportionate and I agree that it is probably not necessary to mandate mask wearing in WA right now because our community transmission is so low, which is fantastic.
“Still, across Australia, no one should feel stigmatised if they want to wear a face mask. I completely support anyone who chooses to do this.
“WA has done such a good job because people initially observed the social distancing and the lockdown request, and I would not want us yet to go back to a situation where we can’t go to the football and can’t go out to restaurants. But still I think if you are going to a football match now with a crowd of 30,000 you need to be very mindful of the correct hygiene and social distancing – be very careful when you are queuing for your hotdog, when you are sitting in your seat and if you are unwell, then just don’t go.
“Even with the great steps we have been able to take in Western Australia, it is important that people are still measured and aware that this virus has not yet gone away and we have to learn to live with it.”
In the absence so far of an effective vaccine, elimination of COVID-19 was not a feasible strategy for Australia to pursue, warned Professor Watson, due to the unacceptable harm the required mass lockdown would cause to those suffering from other diseases as well as to an economy and health sector already under great strain.
“We clearly have to take into account the risk to other health problems in society as well – there is a whole wave of problems with cancer diagnoses, heart problems, diabetes, lung disease and other chronic disease that we also need to bear in mind when we are looking at a proportionate response to lockdown for the COVID-19 virus.
“Elimination is just not feasible. If we were to try and move to elimination now, it would involve essentially Victoria, New South Wales and probably Queensland – more than 15 million of our 25 million population – in lockdown again for up to eight weeks with untold consequences for the economy and other diseases.
“Even with the great steps we have been able to take in Western Australia, it is important that people are still measured and aware that this virus has not yet gone away and we have to learn to live with it.”Professor Jon Watson
“The UK has just estimated there were 35,000 delayed cancer diagnoses from February to June during the pandemic and it would be reasonable to presume in Australia that a significantly high number of people within all of our states delayed having investigations and treatments because they did not want to go to the hospital or their procedures were delayed. Our mental health problems have already been very well documented, with people concerned about their businesses and cut off from their family.”
Professor Watson said while there had recently been some “really promising work” in vaccine development – particularly from Oxford University and the University of Queensland, with predictions of a vaccine possibly ready for release next year – until there was a confirmed vaccine breakthrough, Australia had to focus efforts on determining the correct level of social distancing and physical contact restrictions required to keep the virus suppressed.
“The Oxford Phase 1 studies are showing that there are antibodies generated to their vaccine when injected into humans, but what they have not yet shown is whether the antibodies and the T-cells in someone in real life who is exposed to COVID-19 are actually protective, which is a whole other step,” he said. “We hope that will be the case, but we do not know this yet.
“It is very easy to forget how early on it is in our understanding of this virus.
“The methods Australia is currently relying on to supress COVID-19 – social distancing and avoiding physical contact – are the same used in the Black Death Plague 400 years ago in Europe and England, so we have not yet moved beyond that in terms of what we can do.”
Professor Watson said the resumption of international travel for Australians was reliant on this COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough.
“Really, until a vaccine is available we are not going to be going anywhere anytime soon,” he said. “So international travel might not start up until next year or maybe even the year after.”