A tale of two cities: why Sydney and Melbourne can’t be compared when it comes to COVID

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Last week, the senior geriatrician advising the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre (VACRC) warned that the Victorian aged care sector remains unprepared for a third wave of the virus – eight months into the pandemic.

“The government will say we had a plan, but we hadn’t prepared for a Titanic, we’d prepared for a dinghy,” Associate Professor Michael Murray said.

So why is this still the case – particularly as NSW and Victoria have recorded similar numbers of new infections in past days? Now State Government officials have weighed in on why Melbourne is still under lockdown while Sydneysiders are enjoying eased restrictions – and their findings are interesting.

Victorian COVID clusters in households with five or more people

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Professor Brett Sutton last week labelled the virus threat in his state as “profoundly different from equivalent case numbers in any other jurisdiction of Australia”.

He pointed out that many of the 20,000 people infected during Victoria’s second wave were in the poorer socio-economic areas across the state including metropolitan Melbourne.

While the average household in Victoria has 2.5 people, most of the households at the centre of these clusters were two to three times larger.

“That means more workplaces exposed, and it goes on exponentially. Those workplaces have people working there who have households that are two or three times the size of an average Victorian household,” Professor Sutton said.

“So, the number of close contacts per household, and the number of close contacts they have, is hugely different.”

Casual work, language and cultural barriers and visa status also playing a part

The CHO also acknowledged his state’s “challenges of casualised work, of cash-in-hand, of issues of visa status, issues of language and cultural barriers” – and that Victoria was coming down from dealing with hundreds of new cases per day compared to NSW which is only seeing a small uptick.

“If we had started with a few cases that were not really complex households, that were not really challenging circumstances, we might have been able to approach this very differently,” he stated.

“What we had was 20,000 cases over several weeks that have come down to a very low level, but the remaining chains of transmission in Victoria are some of the trickiest, I imagine, in the world.”

All of Victoria’s infections locally acquired

No country in the world has been able to conduct contact tracing at 100% when they have new cases in the hundreds, he added.

“There are clearly limits to what contact tracing can manage,” he said.

“But we’ve got a team of a size that could manage dozens and dozens of cases per day.”

In contrast, NSW has only had to follow a small number of cases in recent months.

Victoria’s infections have also all been locally acquired and include a number of ‘mystery’ cases, unlike NSW where the majority of new cases have been in returned travellers with fewer ‘mystery’ cases.

“We are not in an equivalent position,” Professor Sutton said.

“We do need that time to see that we have got an average that is actually what all of those epidemiologists are telling us is safe.”

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About Author

Lauren is the Editor at DCM Group and has guided its range of media including The Weekly SOURCE, The Daily RESOURCE and The Donaldson Sisters since 2016. With 13 years’ experience as a journalist, editor and commentator, Lauren is the only journalist to have attended every session of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, producing 300 issues of the subscriber-only The Daily COMMISSION which offers exclusive insights and analysis of the issues surrounding the Royal Commission and the aged care sector.