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Gold Coast at the frontline of the pandemic battle in more ways than one

Insights

From the state’s first Covid patient, to the border war barricades, and producing the new Chief Health Officer, Katrina Beikoff explains how the Gold Coast continues to be at the front line of Queensland’s pandemic battle.

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When the former head of the Gold Coast University Hospital’s infectious diseases chief Dr John Gerrard stepped into the role as Queensland’s Chief Health Officer on December 13, he said he had been training for the role all his life.

At the time he said it was the memory of his brother Stephen, who died from Hong Kong flu amid an overwhelmed Sydney health system in 1968, when John was just six years old, that motivated him to become a doctor and has driven his fight to conquer infectious disease.

“That was a life-changing experience for me. I learned from a very young age what the impact of a surge in a pandemic can do to a health system,” Gerrard said.

“Now that I have this job, I’m determined that that will not happen in Queensland.”

Perhaps more than anywhere else in the country, Gerrard – through his life-long radar for public health calamities – put the Gold Coast on pandemic alert early.

That radar has helped prepare the city for the pandemic’s laser beam focus and the extremes of the changes the virus has wrought over the past two years.

The Gold Coast University Hospital, which opened in 2013, included specifically designed isolation wards to deal with an outbreak of an airborne infectious disease, courtesy of Gerrard.

It was there that Gerrard treated Queensland’s first Covid patient, a 44-year-old man from Wuhan, China in late January 2020, before the deadly mystery virus sweeping the world even had a name.

“I’ve been involved with the pandemic since its beginning – I saw the first patients in Queensland in January of last year and I’ve been involved in managing Covid here in Queensland since that time, including the planning both here in Queensland and two separate missions overseas,” Gerrard said.

“We’ve been planning for a pandemic in Australia of some sort all my career. But never in any of that planning did we expect that we would be able to keep a global pandemic out of Queensland until such time as every Queenslander had access to a safe and effective vaccine.

“That is an extraordinary achievement. But now we are in the next phase.”

The “next phase” has begun with cases of the Covid Omicron variant exponentially increasing across the state causing record-high infection numbers as masses of interstate travellers swarm across the border at the Gold Coast to holiday, or relocate, to Queensland.

Police remain at the border at the Gold Coast and other entry points to the state over the Christmas and New Year break, checking whether travellers coming from a hotspot are fully vaccinated and have tested negative prior to entering.

Yet it’s now a far cry from the ‘Great Wall of Coolangatta’ that divided residents and separated family and friends through many of the 56 border directions that were issued by Queensland Health and forced the city into the role of guardian of the state.

The kilometre-long orange barricade became the symbol of Queensland’s strict no-entry block that prevented the rest of the country entering Queensland, leaving the state recording “double donut days” as Covid cases mounted to the south.

Traffic chaos, kilometres-long queues and hours-long delays became the norm for the southern Gold Coast and Tweed residents as border bubbles opened and then fizzled through the lock out.

Rules came and went about who was able to cross, eventually locking out all but the most essential of workers that excluded even teachers and hospital support staff.

At the same time, reasons for trying to jump the barricade and get into Queensland became increasingly bizarre.

From picking up a new lizard, to buying a bathtub, getting a haircut or going to band practice, Gold Coast Acting Chief Superintendent Rhys Wildman said police saw it all.

“We’ve had the border closed in one form or another since about May 2020, so there’s not many cunning and clever plans you can come up with that we haven’t actually seen before,” Wildman said.

The border wall at the Gold Coast has also been a flashpoint for the weekly anti-vaxxer rallies that have continued through December, in the face of increasing calls for Queenslanders to get the jab.

At the height of the protests in August, police arrested and fined more than 60 protesters who charged the border, including a movie stuntman on horseback who incited the crowd to charge into Queensland from locked-down NSW.

As recently as 12 December, just hours before the reopening of Queensland and as Omicron began its cross-country creep, thousands gathered in Coolangatta to again oppose vaccines, lockdowns and masks.

Much to Gerrard’s and the state health authorities’ chagrin, the Gold Coast continues to lag behind the rest of the state, with all bar one Gold Coast suburb only climbing to above 80 per cent double dose this week.

The Gold Coast is also leading the charge for further relaxing Covid restrictions.

Ahead of Christmas, Gold Coast business leaders were calling for scaled-down restrictions so employers and employees can make the most to recover economically during the holiday season.

For almost two years now, the Gold Coast has presented as the face crippled businesses across the state, particularly in the tourism industry smashed by the lock out of visitors.

In 2020, the Gold Coast lost nearly $4 billion of its $6 billion pre-Covid tourism cash cow.
Tourism spending in the 2021 September quarter for the city was down around $1 billion compared to the same period in 2019, Destination Gold Coast figures show.

Gold Coast Mayor Tom Tate said with the opening of the Gold Coast and Queensland, he could see 2022 as “an era of opportunity” as long as rules were eased rather than tightened.

He said he did not think the Gold Coast carried a greater responsibility than any other Queensland city to arrest the march of Omicron, despite being a prime gateway for domestic and international travellers and among the top destinations for interstate migrants selling up and moving to Queensland.

It was up to the entire state to learn to live with Covid, he said.

“Yes, we are on the border, but Queensland has other borders, from the Northern Territory for example,” Tate said.

“There are also the international arrivals, by boat and air, so realistically, we all share the same responsibility regarding keeping our population as Covid-safe.”

He said rather than insular focus, he wanted the Gold Coast to embrace Covid’s opportunity.

“The opportunity will be to maximise the interest that is being shown in our city from both new residents, and medium-large-scale businesses. Covid has changed the way people view their lives and has given millions of Aussies the opportunity to reset their work-life balance,” he said.

“My focus now is not so much on minimising the spread but is on doing everything we can to help businesses.

“I see 2022 as the start of an era of opportunity with major external investment in medical research, film and television, construction, the marine industry and sports facilities.

“The 2032 Olympics will see us enjoy a period of economic prosperity well into this decade.

“We are a positive, progressive city and we have such an exciting future ahead of us.”

 

 

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