‘We will never be back to pre-COVID’: SA epidemiologist’s warning

A leading epidemiologist says South Australians shouldn’t be fooled into thinking the state will “open up” and life will go back to normal once the 80 per cent vaccination target is reached.

Sep 14, 2021, updated Sep 14, 2021
Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

University of South Australia epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman says the state “will never be back to pre-COVID” and residents will have to learn to live with restrictions such as social distancing and mask-wearing well into the future.

Premier Steven Marshall on the weekend said South Australia was aiming to open its borders to COVID-ravaged states including New South Wales and Victoria when 80 per cent of the state’s population aged 16 and over is fully vaccinated, likely before Christmas.

Marshall told Sky News that “we will certainly move away from state lockdowns” once 80 per cent vaccination is reached.

He said while some interstate travellers could still be excluded from entering SA, “in terms of state lockouts, I think we will also be moving away from that and moving towards more LGA or exposure site exclusions, rather than whole-of-state”.

Esterman told InDaily: “I’m not convinced we will be opening up.”

“We’ve seen what happens in other countries when they open up at that sort of level and it’s been disastrous,” he said.

“If you look at Israel which has got a very high percentage of its population fully vaccinated, they’ve got more deaths now than they’ve had in months.

“They’ve got 50 per cent of all new infections are in people fully vaccinated.

“If and when we do open up it has to be done extremely carefully in a staged way.”

Health Minster Stephen Wade this morning told reporters “we are not going to do a British Freedom Day event”.

“This is a slow, steady pathway out of the pandemic,” he said.

“The mass vaccination program is absolutely crucial to be able to find a safe pathway out of the pandemic.”

Esterman called on the State Government to articulate its plan for opening borders.

He believes it would be safer to wait until 80 to 85 per cent of the entire population is fully vaccinated, including children – not just over-16s.

“If we are going to open up at the 80 per cent of 16 and overs fully vaccinated then we’ve simply got to be very, very careful otherwise we will see an explosion of infections and deaths and that’s what we don’t want,” he said.

Esterman said when borders are relaxed, the State Government should consider allowing only fully vaccinated people in, with the unvaccinated required to do two weeks of quarantine.

“That sort of thing would be the way to do it,” he said.

“It can be done but it’s got to be done so carefully. It can’t be open slather.”

He said South Australians will have to learn to live with restrictions for a long time yet.

“All this talk about when it gets to 80 per cent we will all be fine – no, we won’t,” he said.

“I’m sorry but we won’t be fine. We might be able to open up and relax things a bit but we’ll have to do it very carefully and make sure that we don’t get major outbreaks.

“No matter what we do, people will get very sick and will die from COVID-19, just as they do from influenza.”

Esterman said SA “will never be back to pre-COVID”.

“I think there will still be social distancing measures in place, I think there will still be mask-wearing in certain situations like in public transport, and that’s going to go on for quite a long time,” he said.

“There’s going to be this constant battle between new variants which come along which are either more transmissible or more deadly than the current Delta one and new vaccines coming along.

“So we will learn to live with it but there will always be people dying each year from it and many people hospitalised each year. It’s that balance, what’s acceptable and not.”

Marshall yesterday told reporters “what we want is to return to a situation which is as normal as possible by Christmas”.

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“Vaccination is certainly our path out of the situation where we are susceptible to state lockdowns and state lockouts,” he said.

“We don’t want them going forward.”

A State Government spokesperson said SA “is currently the envy of the nation thanks to our strong COVID response”.

“As has been the case since day one of this pandemic, the government will be making decisions based on the expert health advice,” the spokesperson said.

“Our pathway out of this pandemic is going to be a balancing act – a balancing act which will protect the health of South Australians while also ensuring the economic and community pride of our state is front of mind.

“COVID-19 will come into South Australia at some point in the future, that is a given.

“The government’s aim at the moment is to delay this for as long as possible to allow every South Australian who wants to get vaccinated, to have the opportunity to get vaccinated.

“Our strong COVID response puts us in this enviable position.”

The spokesperson said COVID was “predominantly a disease of the unvaccinated and with every jab that goes into the arm of a South Australian our state becomes safer and our economy becomes stronger”.

“That is why we are the first state to open up the Pfizer vaccine for every South Australia over the age of 12, and why we continue to announce new and expanded clinics,” the spokesperson said.

“Once we hit the 80 per cent mark, South Australians will still have to deal with some restrictions to keep us safe. COVID will concern us but it will no longer control us.

“South Australians will still have to quarantine if they come in contact with the virus. Some travel restrictions may still have to be in place as we continue to navigate out of the pandemic.

“The government’s number one priority is to keep the state safe, everyone in jobs and our community pride in SA strong and proud.”

Chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier told reporters yesterday that “at some point we have to allow the disease to come into our state”.

“I’m hoping that we can do it on our own terms and that we don’t have an outbreak in the meantime,” she said.

“But I do think we need to be looking at our borders with NSW and with Victoria and ACT.

“I don’t want to have those borders shut forever. But we need to be doing it when it’s safe to do so and it’s on our own terms.”

Spurrier said authorities were “looking at what that will mean in terms of having a really good contact tracing system that can pivot and can manage larger number of cases”.

“It will be when we’ve got agreement on what the public health restrictions will be like and it will be when we’re sure that our healthcare systems are really well-placed,” she said.

“Indeed, we will see cases.”

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