Contact tracing cannot be allowed to fail

It was just three months ago that Victoria had a day of no new recorded COVID-19 cases. It was a moment of hope that the worst of the pandemic was behind us. A month later, 288 positive cases were recorded in a single day. The second wave was well into its upward trajectory.

While the hotel quarantine inquiry has dissected the botched operation that triggered the second wave, the same level of public scrutiny has not been levelled at the contact tracing that failed to contain the outbreaks. It was not up to the task, and the state paid a high price for that.

Victoria now finds itself on the other side of the second wave, with daily infections jumping around the low teens and single digits. By any measure, this is a great success. But the recent cluster at Chadstone shopping centre, with linked cases stretching from regional Victoria to Frankston, is putting the spotlight once again on how quickly and effectively the state’s contact tracing can shut down an outbreak.

With every new infection having the potential to delay the easing of restrictions, there is an enormous amount at stake. There have been improvements in contact tracing. Daily case numbers would not have dropped so dramatically if there had not been. With advice from Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, new technology is being installed, and there are now six local contact-tracing centres in regional Victoria and several being established in Melbourne.

The Age also recognises there are special challenges. This week, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, revealed that many of the 20,000 or so people infected in the second wave came from households with between six and 10 members, far greater than an average family. This creates an enormous logistical exercise in tracking down close contacts.

But on the other side of the ledger, contact tracers in Melbourne have the considerable advantage of dealing with a community that is still strictly limited in its movements. Melburnians’ inability to travel more than five kilometres, or visit their loved ones at home, or leave the house to go shopping for anything but essentials, must make the task considerably easier.

There are now 31 cases linked to the Chadstone outbreak and four in Kilmore. The manager of the butcher’s shop at the centre of the Chadstone outbreak was admitted to intensive care, but thankfully appeared to be recovering. Many hundreds of people were turning up to be tested in connection with both clusters. The community is playing its part.

Managing these outbreaks has to be a test case in how best to do things. There is little room for error. The hotel quarantine inquiry was not just a window into a serious case of buck-passing and mismanagement, but for many Victorians it raised concerns over whether this government can adequately manage the pandemic. If trust and confidence are to be rebuilt, they must be earned.

Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer, Allen Cheng, says chance will play a major role in whether Melbourne’s lockdown restrictions will soon be eased. That is true. One infectious super-spreader could tip the balance when it comes to loosening of restrictions. But how much of a role chance gets to play will depend on the effectiveness of contact tracing. No stone can be left unturned. No effort should be spared. Victorians paid dearly for past mistakes. That is not a price they should have to pay again.

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