Victoria’s coronavirus count would have to drop to fewer than 20 cases a day before experts say it could be safe to start easing restrictions, but this milestone may not be too far away.
Authorities have not ruled out extending the current lockdowns and Premier Daniel Andrews said early this week that there was no "magic number" of daily new cases that would dictate when they might be lifted.
The last time the state recorded fewer than 20 new cases of COVID-19 was about seven weeks ago before the second surge took off, adding as many as 725 cases on Wednesday last week.
Infections, however, could be forced down just as quickly as they went up, according to epidemiologists.
Some say it could be feasible to start winding back restrictions in mid-September, though that would depend on how successful health authorities and the public are at stamping out mystery cases.
The current stage four restrictions in the Melbourne metropolitan area are due to end on September 13, while stage three restrictions are in place in regional Victoria and Mitchell Shire.
However, Professor Catherine Bennett, the epidemiology chair at Deakin University, said if the restrictions were able to deliver a reproduction value of 0.5 (meaning that every two people with coronavirus infected only one other person) the daily rate of new cases could fall relatively quickly.
"If we have 200 cases in a week's time, then a week after that we could be at about 100, so you could be looking at two to three weeks to get back to your double digits," Professor Bennett said. "It could happen quite quickly, as long as we didn’t get new outbreaks."
Professor Bennett said while she did not foresee a return to stage three restrictions in Melbourne before September 13, it might be safe to begin to modify some stage four restrictions or rules for regional areas earlier than the current official end date.
"It is possible that there are areas that are deemed very low-risk that could be relaxed," she said.
Burnet Institute epidemiologist Mike Toole believes Victoria could see a return to stage three restrictions within a month.
"It might be even quicker," he said. "But we are already committed to the middle of September, so I think that might be feasible."
But Professor Toole also set a high bar for the easing of rules, saying the state should not go back to stage three until there were no reported cases of mystery origin, daily cases remained low and contact tracing and testing was conducted quickly.
NSW has been battling daily case loads of around 10 to 20 coronavirus infections in recent weeks and University of Melbourne epidemiologist Professor John Mathews said that Victoria would need to get to a similar level before restrictions were changed.
"New South Wales has to put their best foot forward just to stay where they are and their contact tracing hasn't been overstretched," he said.
"A big problem in Victoria was once it got away from the quarantine hotels and into the high-rise buildings and into the broader community and then into aged care, the contact tracing has been totally ineffective really."
Professor Mathews was less optimistic on when it might be possible to ease restrictions, saying it may take longer than six weeks of tough new lockdown measures to reach numbers similar to NSW.
He said that was because there were always more cases in the community than were being picked up from testing.
"If the lockdown and social distancing precautions are relaxed too soon, we’d rapidly be back in the same situation," he said.
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