explainer

Is Australia flattening the curve? Everything we know about the effectiveness of our COVID-19 response.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt gave us all a metaphorical gold star this week. According to him, we’re being very well behaved and properly obeying social distancing, and that’s paying off when it comes to limiting the spread of COVID-19.

“In these most difficult of times, with these most difficult of measures that none of us had ever dreamt we would ever be involved in, you have risen to the occasion,” Minister Hunt told reporters on Sunday.

“We are seeing what I would describe as early promising signs of the curve flattening.”

But what does that actually mean? Are things really getting better? And is it a sign that this will be over sooner than we thought?

Let’s take a look.

First of all, what does flattening the curve mean exactly?

Let’s start with the ‘curve’ itself. That refers to the ‘epidemic curve’, which is a graph epidemiologists use to chart the number of new cases of a disease over time.

‘Flattening the curve’ refers to slowing the spread of the disease so that the graph stops going up and up. Instead, the number of new cases start to steady off, and the graph plateaus.

Take a look at South Korea on this COVID-19 graph as an example (it’s in yellow). Compare that to the USA (dark blue), which is still well and truly in the exponential growth phase.

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In the absence of a vaccine that could stop an outbreak altogether, a flattened curve is beneficial.

Speaking to Mamamia’s daily news podcast, The Quicky, Dr Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious disease specialist and Associate Professor at ANU Medical School, explained why.

“You can have [an outbreak] end quickly or end over a longer period of time,” he said. “When you hear those options, the former one — ending quickly — sounds better. But for that to occur, it means that a lot of people will get infected at once.”

That scenario essentially relies on the fact that people who get the virus develop immunity to it, and then… well, in very basic terms, that’s it; it’s all over.

“The problem with that is that the health system may not have the capacity to cope,” Dr Senanayake said.

And as we’ve seen through Italy and Spain, that can be deadly.

Both countries have been criticised for failing to act quick enough to flatten the curve. The number of new cases in Spain jumped by 6,600 in a single day last week, leaving hospitals overwhelmed and doctors having to make difficult decisions about who to treat.

“On the other hand,” Dr Senanayake continued, “if you try and put in measures to slow the outbreak down, it’ll go on for longer but that peak of cases, that spike, will be much less. So that means your health services and your other societal infrastructure will be able to manage.”

Is Australia really flattening the curve?

There are (very) early signs that Australia is on the right track.

Health Minister Hunt said daily increases in cases had dropped from 25-30 per cent just over a week ago, to nine per cent this week.

That’s certainly positive and no doubt life-saving. But a plateau would have to continue for several more weeks before experts would be prepared to say that a flattening is occurring.

Basically, they’re not getting excited yet.

As several have noted, the new-case drop can likely be attributed to strict border closure measures blocking international travellers. As we know, two-thirds of Australia’s cases have been acquired overseas, so fewer inbound passengers equals fewer imported cases.

Plus, as some are also pointing out, a decrease in incoming passengers also means fewer people who are eligible for COVID-19 testing (recently returned travellers with symptoms are one of the few groups allowed under the current criteria). Once testing is expanded to broader sections of the community, we could see spikes in confirmed cases that would have previously gone undetected.

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And that’s the part of the curve epidemiologists are most fixated on: community transmission.

As President of the Australian Medical Association Dr Tony Bartone told the ABC: “They’re the real numbers which will give us a true indication of how effective the measures are and how we’re travelling.”

So, is this all going to be over soon or not?

That’s the multi-billion dollar question. Unfortunately, there’s no precise way to tell how long it will take for Australia to bring the local outbreak under control.

But despite the recent drop in new cases, we must remember that flattening the curve is a long-term strategy and that our focus must be on slowing community transmission.

That’s where government regulations and recommendations come in: staying indoors unless strictly required, no gatherings of more than two people, keeping 1.5 metres away from anyone outside your household, and so on.

As Australia’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Paul Kelly stressed on Monday, despite positive early signs, now is not the time to relax such measures. In fact, he said it’s the time to “redouble” them.

“Obviously we want to see the curve not only flattening but starting to bend downwards,” he told reporters, “and then making that decision about when to take the foot off the brake will be very difficult.”

As for when that might happen and restrictions might be lifted…

“We have been saying months,” he said, “and I believe it will be months before we get past this epidemic.”

So in the meantime, absolutely celebrate the good news and the lives saved, but don’t be complacent. Keep strictly physical distancing, stay at home as much as you possibly can, and practise thorough hand hygiene. The more we do all of these things, the sooner we’ll be out the other side.

And that will truly be gold-star worthy.

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The current situation around COVID-19 might be making you feel scared or uncertain. It’s okay to feel this way, but it’s also important to learn how to manage feelings of anxiety during this time. To download the free PDF: Anxiety & Coronavirus – How to Manage Feelings of Anxiety click here.

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