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Queensland's battle with the virus shows luck's a fortune - and that it can't last forever


Just over a year ago Queensland escaped what could have been a virus disaster equal to anything we’ve seen in Victoria or New South Wales. We’ve been blessed by luck but it’s not going to hold forever, writes Dennis Atkins.

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Thirteen months ago this week was without doubt the scariest moment Queensland health authorities found themselves up against.

Weeks before two young women slipped back into the state after a journey of nefarious behavior and intent in Melbourne where the SARS-CoV-2 virus was treating Victoria with contempt.

The girls evaded hotel quarantine and were identified as the source of infections across suburbs from Logan in the south to Wacol in the west.

It was the movement of the virus through Wacol that had authorities on edge. It got into the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre with rapidly evolving consequences.

Corrective Services shut down personal visits across south-east Queensland prisons and all emergency procedures were activated. A shadow workforce from Central Queensland was put on standby in case everyone had to go into “iso”.

What wasn’t revealed at the time was how close the call was when it came to the virus switching from a relatively small threat among staff and inmates to something with the potential to engulf the western suburbs of Brisbane out towards Ipswich. The whole of south-east Queensland was in danger.

As one health official involved at the time recalled, “we were a couple of cases away from wildfire”.

This moment in time highlights the defining feature of Queensland’s handling of the virus so far: luck, sometimes dumb.

Authorities learnt plenty of lessons from the Youth Detention Centre close call – especially in relation to tracing, testing and rapid response. It was an unplanned stress test and, with sweat popping up across peoples’ brows, we passed.

All possible major outbreaks are regarded as stress tests – the Indooroopilly High and Ironside Primary School cluster was the last one with enough doom and gloom to frighten administrators – and this state is staying one suburb ahead of the border hopping truck drivers.

However, a fundamental truth has to be realised by people in Queensland. Anyone who has not been inoculated from infection will most certainly get the virus at some time in the next couple of years.

In fact, a few people who have been vaccinated will be infected. What’s going to be different is that those who have had needles will most likely get a mild, probably asymptomatic case of the virus but those without inoculation will be in hospital, probably on ventilation, maybe in intensive care. Some will die.

The virus is coming, It might not arrive in the systems of rule-breaking party girls but it will come, especially after New South Wales rolls the dice on opening up its economy and society.

That’s going to happen in about four weeks, maybe around the running of the $15 million Everest horse race due on October 16. Victoria is now aiming for a Melbourne Cup week opening at the beginning of November.

It’s very Australian to have the gamble of “opening up” tied to the staging of two thoroughbred horse races attracting the biggest punting pots of the racing calendar. Hope we can get fixed odds.

This reality is something driving the late-in-the-game enthusiasm for vaccinations in Queensland.

After adding to Scott Morrison’s cack-handed recasting of the risk profile for the AstraZeneca vaccine (delivered courtesy of some policy advice from a health and crisis administrator), the Queensland Government has wandered around without urgency in getting the people of this state inoculated.

Morrison might not have thought getting vaccines into the community was a race but neither did the state government have any speed behind moving that slow supply from vials to needles ready for arms.

Now the Queensland Government has spotted the light that’s been flashing for weeks – if you’re going to stand any chance to slow the spread or potency of the arrival of the Delta variant or any possible (but unlikely at the moment) future germination you need very high rates of vaccination.

There are three vital reasons why Queensland needs high vaccination rates more than any state beyond New South Wales and Victoria (where clear and present dangers are all too obvious).

Queensland is exposed because of our proximity to NSW and any opening of the border or just regular seepage after things relax south of the Tweed will see lots of people, lots of virus and lots of risk head north. It is a better bet than anything you might pick for one of those big horse races.

In Queensland people are not ready to mingle with that kind of risk. Yes, we have been mostly well behaved when it comes to wearing masks but some places are clueless in that department (step up the Gold Coast and Noosa).

We are unaware of what social distancing means in most instances and we often forget to check in when going to stores or other places.

Also, we have a quarantine system at best third rate, courtesy of a federal government negligent in planning ahead, accepting any responsibility or admitting the shortcomings of existing facilities.

Finally, like all governments, Queensland is not doing enough to get better ventilation in public buildings (especially schools) or working with private enterprise to do something about better air flows.

When political leaders bang the vaccines drum, they need to also speak up on the other key essentials advisers such as the Doherty and the Burnet institutes highlight: the TTI bit of VTTI (the four letters refer to vaccines, test, trace, isolate). Vaccines are almost everything but the testing, tracing and isolating are the rest of everything (with ventilation thrown in as the last essential ingredient).

We might be headed in the right direction, but there’s still so much more work to be done.

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