Experts say it is social distancing, not the weather, that will determine whether Australia experiences a second wave of COVID-19 infections.
They agree Australia must hasten slowly in removing restrictions, fearing a spike in infections that will undo the good work done so far in combatting the deadly disease.
And they say a second wave won’t occur as a result of the country entering winter.
Professor Michael Wallach, an expert in infectious diseases from the University of Technology in Sydney, told the ABC the virus “doesn’t seem to care about the weather”.
“I don’t think it’s simply a matter of warm or cold weather. This virus is extraordinarily good at transmitting and infecting human cells,” he said.
The myth that hot weather combats the disease is partly attributable to US President Donald Trump, who in March told Fox business and state governors that the virus “dies with the hotter weather” in April (Northern Hemisphere).
The Australian reported that Trump administration coronavirus taskforce coordinator Dr Deborah Birx is monitoring how our winter affects our anti-virus efforts.
“It will be very interesting to watch Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa and Chile and Argentina to see what happens with the virus in the summertime, and what’s happening to the virus here,” it quoted Dr Birx as saying. “So really, those two pieces will really define how we (the US) do in the fall.”
However, experts don’t believe the season will affect the progress of the virus.
“It’s a new disease, so we don’t know whether there’s a direct link between the weather and COVID-19,” said infectious diseases epidemiologist Meru Sheel, from the Australian National University. “Although the evidence would suggest probably not.”
Peak transmission in Australia occurred in warm weather.
“We see also what’s happening in Sweden, where they’re coming into spring now and people are outside – the transmission rate is high … we’re seeing a high level of mortality,” said Prof. Wallach.
Extreme heat is used as a form of sterilisation in hospitals, said Brian Oliver, professor of respiratory diseases at the University of Technology Sydney.
“If it were something like 50°C, well, then it probably wouldn’t survive too well. But how many places reach 50°C?” he told the ABC.
He said a 37-degree day “is not going to do much”.
Flu is more of a concern in winter because more people congregate in proximity in colder months, which increases infection rates. Influenza is called a ‘seasonal flu’. A bad flu season would make it more difficult to combat COVID-19.
But social distancing measures are effective against both diseases.
“Basically, the risk of a second wave is because most of us haven’t had the infection, so the vast majority are still not immune,” Dr Kathryn Snow, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne, told The New Daily. “That means the possibility that it will take off and a lot of us will get sick.
“Unfortunately, there is still a really huge risk. I think we’ve done really well; we’ve managed to flatten our curve.”
Bill Bowtell, a strategic health policy adviser and adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales, said if we “throw caution to the wind” a second wave will occur.
“As sure as night follows day, a second wave will come if people ignore or reject the need for social distancing … and believe that somehow everything is fine, which it’s not.
“We saw how quickly things can go wrong in Tasmania. They were doing pretty well as an island. It seemed they had it under control. The virus slipped through and there was a big spike,’’ Prof Bowtell said.
“That to me seems to be the concern, as we move cautiously to any sort of relaxation. You wouldn’t want to relax measures except on the basis of science and extreme caution.”
Singapore eased restrictions, saw an immediate and dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases, then reintroduced and extended strict measures until June.
“Other flu pandemics – including in 1957 and 1968 – all had multiple waves. The 2009 H1N1 influenza A pandemic started in April and was followed, in the US and temperate northern hemisphere, by a second wave in the autumn.”
Dr Chris Moy, president of the Australian Medical Association in South Australia, also warned against Australia relaxing restrictions too quickly.
“We are not at all close to getting out of the woods … If we open up again, we will get a second wave, there’s no doubt about it,” Dr Moy told SBS News.
“And the next wave could be harder, because during the first wave we knew where ‘the enemy’ was coming from – basically from overseas. We knew who we had to test and who we had to contact trace,” he said.
“The next wave, if it comes, will come from the community, and we won’t know exactly where it’s coming from, which is scary if that happens.”
A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters this week: “If you move too quickly, then the virus could begin to spread exponentially again. The big concern is a second peak, that is what ultimately will do the most damage to health and the most damage to the economy.
“What we need to be certain of is that if we move to lift some of the social distancing measures it isn’t going to lead to the virus starting to spread exponentially again.”
Archie Clements, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Curtin University, is urging cautious lifting of social restrictions.
But he has sobering news.
“There are going to be some restrictions around our lives for a number of years, because it will take that long for a vaccine to be developed and tested and rolled out.”
Dr Snow agrees. “Until a vaccine exists, the risk won’t go away.”
Are you prepared for a long battle against COVID-19? Have you reconciled with yourself that our old ways may be at least a year away?
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