Australians will need to adjust to less forensic tracking and tracing of Covid-19 infections even as case numbers continue to rise, according to the expert leading the Doherty Institute’s epidemiological modelling.
Prof Jodie McVernon has confirmed she is currently working with governments to gradually de-escalate the public health responses rolled out during the first, second and third waves of the pandemic.
McVernon said the new policy development process involved identifying the “core response actions that will get you the majority of the impact”. She said higher vaccination rates were enabling the necessary step-change in infection control strategies such as contact tracing.
“We can’t discuss this in detail yet, but we are obviously looking at what is happening in the public health response right now, and understanding what is making the biggest impact,” she told Guardian Australia.
The Doherty modelling led by McVernon underpins Australia’s four-phase reopening plan. Guardian Australia revealed last week that updated modelling presented to national cabinet warned that maintaining “medium” public health and social measures would be “prudent” until Australia reached 80% of adults fully vaccinated if caseloads were high.
McVernon said Australia’s public health interventions had escalated significantly over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. The challenge for governments now was managing the transition from pandemic to the virus becoming endemic in the community, she said.
“Look where we were 18 months ago, what we thought was normal, and what we think is normal now.
“We’ve adapted and adapted and adapted and adapted – when you think about testing, tracking, isolating and quarantining, the idea that somebody who walked past you in a supermarket when you were there for half an hour would ever be called a contact – that was never in our minds.
“It’s the frog in the kettle. We lose sight of how much everything escalated as we moved more into the position of zero community transmission and had to deal with Delta and all these other things that have been heightening risks over time.”
Using a Spinal Tap analogy, McVernon said: “As we continue to adapt, we now have a vaccine in play that is actually lowering risks. We are so used to turning things up to 11 and hoping for the best.
“We’ve been turning everything up to 11 for a very long time. We can actually start to turn the volume down because of the vaccine.”
Because vaccines were now an effective part of the arsenal, governments were moving away from “a position of public health responses with the objective of stamping out every last infection, to public health responses targeted around reducing onward spread”.
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She said governments now understood where most of the transmission occurred, and that understanding enabled finite public health resources to be rationalised. In the past we’ve had “concentric rings of contact tracing and tier one and tier two exposure sites and we go on and on, and we’ve got to get every last [infection]”.
“But as we move into this new era, we will have a higher tolerance for saying ‘OK, if we don’t test every single person who went to the supermarket, we might miss one, but if there are lots of infections in the community that has a very different risk consequence’”.
The modelling Doherty has undertaken for governments emphasises the importance of sustained public health and social measures, including tracking, tracing, isolation and quarantine, in curbing coronavirus outbreaks.
McVernon said those strategies remained critically important but the interventions needed to become more focused.
“We are still working this out. This is going to be different states and territories in different positions,” she said.
“If you’ve got an area of low vaccine coverage, you’ll be more worried the vaccine won’t do as much of the heavy lifting so we are going to have to have more proactive public health responses there.”
McVernon said as the rates of vaccinations increased, Australians would need to gradually adjust their mindset from governments doing all the heavy lifting with restrictions to “making this more a shared sense of responsibility”.