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'Hundreds of cases a day': Experts warn we need to brace for COVID surge when borders reopen

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Queenslanders should prepare themselves for the possibility of hundreds of COVID-19 virus cases being reported daily when borders reopen, even once 80 per cent of eligible people are fully vaccinated, experts warn.

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Since the pandemic began early last year, the Sunshine State has restricted known cases of the virus to 2021, including seven deaths, but those numbers are expected to swell as the state begins to open up.

Across Australia, 90,372 infections with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have been recorded. Queensland accounts for just 2.23 per cent of that, despite having 20 per cent of the nation’s population.

By any measure, Queensland has done well in keeping virus numbers low so far, particularly since the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant, but its handling of the next stage of the pandemic is expected to be a more difficult transition as restrictions are eased.

Queensland is on track to hit double dose vaccination rates for 80 per cent of residents aged 16 and older by early December. But that will still leave hundreds of thousands of residents unvaccinated.

Brisbane-based infectious disease physician Paul Griffin, a University of Queensland associate professor, said that when borders reopened and a COVID-19 outbreak inevitably strikes, Queenslanders would have to prepare for a rise in cases, hospital admissions and deaths.

“We’ll have hundreds, maybe even 1000 or more cases a day, when we do reopen,” he said.

“We need to shift our mindset from having zero cases which really was never supposed to be the long-term strategy because it’s just not something we can sustain forever.”

University of Queensland virologist Ian Mackay said a spiral in cases was a given once freedoms were returned.

“We could be seeing hundreds of cases, we could even be seeing thousands of cases happening, in a day in Queensland, and I don’t think the public are really prepared for that,” Associate Prof Mackay said.

“We need to make them realise that what we’re looking at is a change from what we’ve been used to over the last year or so.

“We’re going to see hospital cases rise, we’re going to see some deaths we haven’t been used to seeing and that, I think, is going to upset some people, as it rightly should. Demand for intensive care units will be also higher.”

The hope is that once a large outbreak of the Delta variant hits Queensland, COVID-19 vaccination rates will have reached at least 80 per cent of the eligible population.

“The proportion of people that need to be hospitalised when they’re fully vaccinated is so much lower than when they’re not,” Griffin said. “Most importantly, the proportion of people that die is so low when they’re fully vaccinated.

“We see that with the ICU numbers in NSW where the vast majority of people are not vaccinated. There’s a few people who’ve had one, or only just recently had their second one.

“If we get more people vaccinated, we’ll hopefully keep the vast majority out of ICU.”

Both Mackay and Griffin are hopeful Queenslanders will continue mask wearing when they cannot socially distance, such as on public transport, even when mandates are lifted.

“I’m hoping this generation of kids is going to learn a lot more about how useful masks can be and how anything that isn’t that big a hassle to do, that prevents disease both in yourself and those around you, is worth doing,” Mackay said.

“It’s not a big drama. Just do it. I think our kids will understand that better than probably the generation of adults now.”

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has refused to commit to a timeline of reopening the state’s borders, even once 80 per cent of eligible residents are vaccinated.

National cabinet will discuss the issue when it next meets on Friday week.

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