“Contact tracing is critical”: microbiologist warns aged care and village operators to download COVIDSafe app

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Using the Government’s COVIDSafe app – and quickly identifying contacts when a case of coronavirus detected is the key to preventing another large cluster in Australia’s aged care homes, according to Professor Stephen Turner.

Prof. Turner knows what he is talking about. He is the Head of the Microbiology Department at Monash University’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute and an expert on viral infections.

He tells us that while Australia has done well at reducing its number of confirmed cases to very low numbers, historically pandemics often have ‘second waves’ that prove to be a “double-edged sword” in communities that have controlled the number of infections.

“You have lots of people who are still susceptible because of the lack of exposure,” he said. “This is very much in case in aged care where elderly people are at the highest risk of infection.”

Stephen says limiting this ‘wave’ in aged care will depend on people maintaining hygiene and physical distancing, covering their face with masks, using hand sanitiser and avoiding homes if they have symptoms – and keeping it up.

“If you look at the UK infection rates, it’s still very much spreading and there is always that risk of reintroduction.”

Stephen says that Australia does have an advantage in that it has now built up its ICU capacity to 3,500 beds – compared to just seven people with the virus currently in ICU.

However, the Professor says contact tracing is the most critical part of stamping out the virus – and that means using the Federal Government’s COVIDSafe app.

“It is clear from other jurisdiction, Germany, the UK for example, that electronic contact tracing really does work and helps get on top of this thing much more quickly.”

Previously, health authorities would need to rely on people’s recall capacity – which could be unreliable, Stephen says.

“Now they can go to your phone and see who you’ve been in contact with and that works.”

And while flu surveillance networks show that physical distancing measures have actually limited the start of this year’s flu season, Prof. Turner says winter is still the worst time for transmission of respiratory viral infections.

“Viruses are more stable in cold weather,” he said, “plus people tend to congregate indoors and close contact for transmission helps that.”

Stephen’s message? Australia has not eradicated COVID-19, pointing to the Cedar Meats cluster in Melbourne where over 100 people have now been infected after one person went to work with symptoms.

“Assume you’re infected and you don’t want to transmit,” he warned.

“Practise all the necessary hygiene requirements, make sure people maintain physical distancing, and limit the amount of time people spend together,” he advised. “Anything more than few minutes, then they must wear masks. This can lower the risk of outbreaks.”

Do providers have the PPE available for staff, residents and visitors to wear masks throughout winter though?