Is the COVID-19 glass half full or half empty?

Just a few short weeks ago, it was all gloom and doom. The number of people infected by coronavirus in Australia was doubling every 3-to-4 days. If that rate had continued unabated, intensive care beds would have been overwhelmed by this week or next. But social distancing – or more accurately ‘spatial distancing’ – measures have had an effect and Australia has pulled away from that terrible trajectory.

The growth of new cases in Australia is now about 4 per cent each day. We are no longer growing exponentially, where the number of new cases added each day is increasing.

But unfortunately, these numbers are affected by Australia’s testing regime. We know there is a reservoir of people in the community who have been infected – and may still be infectious – who have not been tested. Lifting restrictions too soon will result in a second wave of rapid infection growth.

Australia’s recent success in reducing infections has principally been driven by throttling international transmissions, which are falling away quickly. But local transmission has not shared the same fate, with the rate of new cases remaining relatively flat over the past week or so.

At current rates of new cases, Australia’s health system capacity will not be overwhelmed, even without the potential expansion of intensive care beds that state governments have announced. But Australia still needs to be cautious about relaxing spatial distancing restrictions.

The new rate-limiting factors for Australia’s response to COVID-19 are not ICU beds, but rather our capacity to test and trace — to measure the extent of community transmission and to ensure that any new infections are followed up rapidly.

The recent trend in local new cases is a result of transmissions that occurred about a fortnight ago. We may need to wait another week or so to see whether the local infection trend starts to reduce too.

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