Colac’s aged care homes had kept the virus at bay while nursing homes in Melbourne were in the grip of a rising death toll. Late last month, it seemed the town had almost beaten the virus.

The community fightback began months earlier when 50 local leaders gathered in the Colac Tigers Football Netball Club rooms. The meeting was organised by Shane Vicary, chief executive of the AKD Softwoods forestry and timber processing company, which is one of Colac’s biggest employers.

“My message to everybody in the room was the community needs to be ready to look after the community because when it turns bad Melbourne’s not going to help us,” he said.

AKD Softwoods chief executive Shane Vicary who led the community response to coronavirus infections in Colac. Credit:Jason South

The group devised an action plan including a series of videos where local nurses, businesspeople, teenagers, teachers, sport and religious leaders implored fellow community members to take the virus seriously.

Local employers as well as radio stations 3CS and MIXX FM and newspaper The Colac Herald coordinated the release of the videos on social media for maximum impact.

MIXX FM general manager Nick Hay said the videos and campaign appealed to Colac’s sense of community with messages imparted by its own people.

“We thought it was better coming from the captain of the football club than the Premier,” he said.

Colac recorded its first case on July 17.

Shortly after, the group released another video urging people to get tested if they felt the slightest symptoms and then stay home.

Locals seemed to be listening even though infections were spreading quickly.

A few days after the first case was recorded, Colac Otway Shire mayor Jason Schram called for the state government to declare a two-week lockdown for the town. But at the same time he observed the community was already imposing its own tough restrictions.

Colac Otway Shire mayor Jason Schram called for tougher restrictions to curb the spread of the virus in Colac. Credit:Jason South

Some businesses closed voluntarily and many people stayed home. Masks were being worn in public almost two weeks before they became compulsory in regional Victoria.

“People just decided to have their own lockdown and restrictions without even asking the government,” Cr Schram said.

He said the consequences may have been disastrous had the town not decided to go it alone.

For weeks senior community, business and health care figures had been conducting weekly Zoom meetings sharing information about infection control measures and tips on how they were responding to the virus in the workplace.

Australian Lamb Company where Colac’s first major outbreak first took root. Credit:Jason South

At AKD there was one case recorded but they managed to stop it spreading any further.

In mid-July, Geelong-based Barwon Health took over from the Department of Health and Human Services, including managing contact tracing, just as infections linked to the Australian Lamb Company abattoir were taking off.

Barwon Health deputy director of infectious diseases, Daniel O’Brien praised the response from locals.

“The community provided food and welfare packages for people who suddenly had to isolate,” he said.

But Associate Professor O’Brien he said the situation was complicated by the living conditions of many abattoir employees who worked together and then lived in the same “dormitory accommodation”.

They were ideal conditions for spreading the virus.

Many of the workers had to be provided with alternative housing, some of them in motels, so they could isolate properly.

A mass testing blitz began and the Australian Defence Force was called in to help contain the spread.

Colac Area Health chief executive Fiona Brew. Credit:Jason South

Colac Area Health chief executive Fiona Brew said her health service was an early adopter of many infection control measures. The local hospital began screening staff for the virus in February.

The health service decided to drastically cut back on visits to its aged care home earlier than many others in Melbourne.

“Aged care from day one is what has kept me awake at night. That’s always been my worry going back to February because they’re part of your most vulnerable population,” she said.

But now fears are rising that Colac is about to undergo another wave of infections as new cases emerged during the week despite the remarkable campaign to free the town from the virus.

On Saturday, there were 23 active cases, while Geelong had 21. Barwon Health confirmed the new infections were apparently linked to a man who had to receive essential medical care and became infected in a Melbourne hospital.

Widespread symptomatic testing will begin all over again in Colac.

Bulla Dairy Foods recorded six cases by Friday and has closed one of its sites, with 314 workers undergoing tests during the week.

The company’s general manager of operations, Kylie Armstrong, who grew up in Colac, said people were again scared but rallying together.

“There’s a level of anxiousness but there’s a loving, caring feeling in the community as well,” she said.

Shane Vicary said the community leaders would not waver in their commitment to defeating the virus.

But he conceded there was a group of baby boomers and young “bulletproof” men in their early 20s who may be tiring of complying with such onerous rules over these long weeks.

He said the community health message may change to urging people to follow the rules so they can get together by Christmas.

“Nobody likes being told what to do. We’re recognising our message is different to Melbourne’s,” he said.

Thankfully, there no mystery cases so far among those recorded so far.

Associate Professor O’Brien said the previous outbreak had proved that when the community pulls together to produce a “great combined effort” the virus can be contained.

“I feel pretty confident we can do the same again.”

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Benjamin is The Age’s regional editor. He was previously state rounds reporter and has also covered education for The Age.

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