New South Wales’ response to the pandemic has been praised as the “gold standard” for Australia, with the Prime Minister saying its contact tracing abilities, lessened restrictions and open borders is something all other states and territories should aspire to.
At the beginning of the pandemic, NSW was the hardest hit state with the highest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian and her Government faced harsh criticism after thousands of passengers on the Ruby Princess cruise ship were allowed to disembark in Sydney on March 19, despite multiple passengers displaying coronavirus symptoms.
The decision led to more than 900 virus cases, which spread rapidly as passengers made their way back to their homes around the country.
There have been 28 deaths officially linked to the ship.
Now, less than six months later, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and multiple health experts are praising NSW for its handling of the pandemic.
The state went from recording 212 cases on March 28 to just four cases yesterday. So how did NSW get on top of its growing case numbers?
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NSW’s contact tracing team has continually been praised for its ability to quickly identify chains of transmission, link cases to known clusters and notify close contacts of known cases.
Though the state has seen a slight rise in cases in recent weeks, the contact tracing and NSW Health teams have been able to keep cases from exploding.
The PM heaped praise on NSW’s contact tracing abilities during a press conference on Monday, saying the state has set the standard for the rest of the country.
“NSW is the gold standard. That is where we have to get everybody to ensure that Australia can be open. The plan that we will work on with the states and territories is to get ourselves to that standard so Australia can be open,” he said.
Part of the reason NSW’s contact tracing is so successful is due to its integrated approach with the Health Department and multiple other teams, according to Mr Morrison.
“In NSW, their special emergency operations centre is an integrated operation which involves Health – it’s actually led by the police in NSW. It certainly has Health central to its operations, but there are many parts of government, when you’re dealing with a crisis of this nature, which needs to be brought together,” he said.
“Health is vital, and the way I think NSW has integrated the health response with all of these others is proving to be very successful.”
Mr Morrison suggested that if all states and territories reached the contact tracing standard of NSW then there would be less need for the restrictions that are in place across the country.
Despite daily COVID-19 cases hovering between single and double digits, NSW has considerably eased restrictions.
The current restrictions include:
• A limit on 20 visitors to a household at one time and no more than 20 people gathering outside in a public place.
• Funeral services must adhere to an attendee limit of either one person per 4sq m or 100 people, which ever is reached first.
• Places of worship can have up to 100 people subject to the 4sq m rule.
• A wedding service cannot exceed 150 people subject to the 4sq m rule and the event must register as COVID-Safe.
• All businesses must operate under the 4sq m rule, with businesses such as hospitality venues, places of public worship, funeral homes, crematoria and gyms required to register as a COVID-Safe venue.
• The NSW/Victorian border is temporarily closed, with anyone who has been in Victoria the past 14 days banned from entering the state unless in special circumstances.
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LEADING HEALTH SYSTEM
Part of the reason Ms Berejiklian was able to get COVID-19 case numbers under control following the initial outbreak was due to the state’s focus on its healthcare system.
Raina MacIntyre, a leading epidemiologist from the Kirby Institute, said there was a stark difference between the NSW and Victorian healthcare systems, which could indicate why the two states have been impacted by the virus so differently.
Prof MacIntyre told the ABC that NSW had been investing in its health system for years, unlike the Victorian system which has been “decimated”.
“When it comes to public health infrastructure and resources per head of population, Victoria is much worse off than any other state in Australia,” she said.
“Victoria is just a shell of a system; it’s just been decimated. And that’s fine in the good times – you can get by on a minimal model – but when there’s a pandemic all those weaknesses are exposed.”
The built up health system has allowed NSW to have strong local resources not only in Sydney, but every other part of the state where clusters have emerged.
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Mr Morrison said even though NSW has had the “largest threats to deal with” during the coronavirus crisis, it has still managed to get the situation under control and allow the state to reopen.
“Clearly, what NSW is doing is working better than other places because they have the biggest threats to their system and have had the best results … in response to those threats,” he said.
“That clearly indicates that that is the standard which we should be seeking to move towards.”
It isn’t just Mr Morrison who has been singing NSW’s praises, with former PM Malcolm Turnbull saying Ms Berejiklian has been doing an “outstanding job” at suppressing the virus.
“Sydney, it’s a big city, a lot of density, a big cosmopolitan city, a lot of people coming and going, it’s got all the risk factors, is filled with risk factors or infection factors as anywhere in Australia,” Mr Turnbull told the ABC on Monday.
“And yet she has managed so far to keep the virus suppressed and it is a huge credit to her. She deserves a lot more credit and recognition for what she has done.”
HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO VICTORIA?
As the two states with the highest number of coronavirus cases, comparisons have continually been drawn between the NSW and Victorian responses to the pandemic.
These comparisons have been ramped up in recent days since Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews revealed the state’s much-anticipated roadmap out of lockdown.
Many people were quick to question some of the case benchmarks for easing restrictions, pointing out Sydney would be back in lockdown and under curfew if it was following the same plan.
For Melbourne to reach the third step out of lockdown the average number of cases must be less than five statewide for 14 days and there must be no more than five mystery cases in the two weeks beforehand.
By comparison, this goal is far lower than the average two-week numbers currently being recorded in NSW but the state still has considerably lighter restrictions.
Australian National University epidemiologist Professor Peter Collignon is one of the many health experts who have called this part of the plan into question.
“The criteria for moving between stages in Melbourne is not reasonable. If NSW had those criteria it would be in stage two lockdown right now,” he told news.com.au.
Prof Collignon said the plan laid out by Victoria leans more towards elimination strategy, which he says isn’t “realistic” with the roadmap’s timeline.
“A more realistic strategy is that of NSW and the Commonwealth where you have suppression and the virus at low levels. You do get elimination in some areas but it’s always going to be easy to come back because it’s so widespread around the world,” Prof Collignon said.
However, Mr Andrews hit back at the comparison yesterday, saying the rate of community transmission makes the situation in NSW a lot different from the one in Victoria.
“It’s unfair not to acknowledge the fact that they haven’t had the community transmission that we’ve had. That’s not a point of pride. It’s just a fact,” Mr Andrews said.
“And trying to compare the two is not the same. I’ve seen all this commentary about, ‘Oh, well, under our settings, they’d be in lockdown’. No, they wouldn’t. Because they’ve not had the community transmission we’ve had. So we are different.”