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"Surveillance" to decide when to ease SA COVID-19 restrictions

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Dealing with COVID-19 is an “ultramarathon” and lifting South Australia’s coronavirus restrictions won’t happen until more rigorous testing is enforced – irrespective of the number of days that pass without new cases – the state’s chief public health officer says.

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At this morning’s first COVID-19 Parliamentary Response Committee hearing, chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier said because COVID-19 was a “novel virus”, the state needed to be “even more cautious” when considering easing social distancing restrictions.  

The committee, which also heard from SA Police commissioner and state emergency coordinator Grant Stevens, was appointed to monitor and scrutinise all matters related to the management of South Australia’s COVID-19 response.

Spurrier described the state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic as an “ultra-marathon”, with the impacts set to continue until further testing had been done to ensure South Australians were safe from the spread.  

She said while there was a “general understanding” among health experts that restrictions could be lifted within two reproduction cycles of not having new cases, South Australia would instead use “surveillance” to determine when society could return to normality.

“We know that it’s (COVID-19) highly transmissible but we’re only learning more recently about the ability to have asymptomatic people transmit the disease and that’s been since we’ve been able to look at our own data in Australia,” she said.

“That’s the reason for the importance of having such high testing rates. 

“In this space we’re looking at a plan more of surveillance – how would we be able to test more people in South Australia in a rigorous way with a rigorous sampling frame for us to feel confident that we’re not missing any cases.”

Spurrier said to date, more than 450,000 tests had been conducted across Australia, including over 47,000 in South Australia. 

Testing in South Australia has spiked since the State Government expanded the eligibility criteria last week to anyone who presents with coronavirus symptoms.

Spurrier said this morning that health workers were testing people who presented at sites, regardless of whether they met the criteria. 

“The testing sites have said to me, ‘actually Nicola, we have been doing people anyway who have come forward for a period of time’,” she said.

“We are testing more people in South Australia per head of our population than any other state in Australia and well above that national average.

“Now that we’re having the COVID blitz I was not really sure how many people would come forward for a test, and we’ve been absolutely delighted at the number of South Australians who’ve come forward and been tested.”

Source: SA Health

Emergency services coordinator Grant Stevens told the hearing that there had so far been three cases in South Australia where police officers had been assaulted by someone alleging to have COVID-19 who coughed or spat on them.

“It’s my view that we have sufficient authorities to deal with those people,” he said.

“We are able to charge the individuals with assault and there’s the element of aggravation because of the particular aspect being an emergency services worker.”

Stevens said SA Police was “watching very closely” the number of domestic violence-related call-outs following concerns the number would spike due to increased tension in family homes.

He said there had been a “slight increase” of about nine per cent of domestic violence offences “but that current increase is not of sufficient significance or sufficient duration to say it was directly attributed to COVID-19”.

“It’s not inconsistent with normal fluctuations,” he said.

“In many cases that increase occurs when we have severe lockdown arrangements where people are required to not leave their home unless they are leaving one of four different reasons – so they are essentially contained within a domestic dwelling.

“We don’t have that arrangement in South Australia at this point in time.”

Stevens said SA Police would not increase its monitoring of known domestic violence households as that could “inflame” violence in the home.

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