COVID-19 - Dr. Jim Halverson

COVID-19 - Dr. Jim Halverson

Ask Dr. Halverson: How Melbourne, Australia, eradicated COVID-19

web 4 17 Halverson photo

By Dr. Jim Halverson

In July, the Australian state of Victoria was going through a second COVID-19 wave.

State and local leaders set an improbable goal in the face of that challenge. They did not want to get their COVID-19 numbers down. They wanted to eliminate the virus entirely.

By the end of November, they had done it. 

Melbourne, the state’s capital and a city of 5 million people, is now completely coronavirus-free. 

In addition, Australia, a country of 23 million people, reported only seven cases on Dec. 5. By contrast, Ventura County, with a population of 850,000, reported 488.

Ken and Tina Lewis, friends of mine for more than 40 years, have lived in Melbourne for their entire adult lives I spoke with them Sunday about the commitment and sacrifices that it took on the part of every Australian to reach this goal.

“It was a goal that nearly every resident in Melbourne and the rest of Australia believed in and were willing to commit to,” said Ken. “We put on our mask every time we went outside our home and only removed it if we were in the car or exercising. It was a symbol of our commitment to each other and achieving the goal of getting life back to normal.”

Australians were asked to follow other difficult guidelines. “We were asked not to spend time with anyone except our household members” said Tina. “Travel was restricted to within 5 kilometers of your home, unless you were an essential worker who had to travel farther than that to your job.” Initially, churches were closed except for online services, as were restaurants except for take-out, all retail stores and all hotels. “We left the house to go to the grocery store and walk the dog.” 

“Initially it was difficult,” added Ken, “but we quickly adapted. My garden has not had a weed in it for the past four months and my lawn is as smooth as a putting green. Tina has been a fabulous cook and we have had lots of time in the kitchen to enjoy cooking. Unfortunately, I did gain 3 kilos,” Ken added, laughing.

Ken and Tina are retired and have been avid travelers, spending weeks on the road touring Australia and frequently visiting their two adult children and grandchildren who live several hours away. I asked them how they have been able to deal with social distancing. “That was the hardest part for us,” stated Tina. “We spent lots of time on Zoom meetings with the kids, grandkids and friends. It was easier knowing that they were going through the same sacrifices. Their schools were closed except to students who had both parents working in essential jobs. Our children were also following very similar guidelines in their communities. We kept encouraging each other, especially as we saw that the measures were lowering the case numbers throughout the country. We also enjoyed many virtual happy hours with our good friends and family.”

National and state leaders were extremely encouraging to all Australians and worked together to support the economy and health of the nation. “Businesses could apply for aid from the government to pay all workers $750 per week and that financial support will continue until they can reopen. Unemployment benefits have been increased. Closed hotels were used to house and support the homeless. Every morning at 10 o’clock, our state premier, the equivalent position of your governor, and our state chief medical officer gave updates on television and stayed until every question was answered,” said Ken approvingly.

Of course, there was some pushback and restlessness from a small minority of people. Fines were established for violating mask and travel mandates. “I don’t know if people will be forced to pay the fines if they can’t afford them, but it certainly was embarrassing for people to be pulled over to the side of the road and be cited for traveling out of their regions. Our auto licenses are area specific and it was not difficult for authorities to know if you were violating the travel restrictions,” added Tina. “Of course, we made it a matter of commitment to never take a chance,” she laughed.

As cases dwindled, the lockdown measures were relaxed in a clear, tiered fashion. The extreme travel restrictions were the first to go. Schools and business could reopen with spaces. Churches were allowed to begin outdoor services in person. Masks continue to be required indoors and on public transportation. Eventually, all restrictions except for international quarantine could be lifted. The country is even talking about delaying vaccinations for COVID-19 to allow other countries to have first access.

Things could still go wrong for Victoria and the rest of Australia. The state has started prioritizing having “normal” conditions for the Christmas shopping season over maintaining zero new cases. But it is easier to focus on reopening when community spread is eliminated-rather than pushing forward with reopening in spite of sustained spread, as the United States has done.

“We know that we’re going to basically have a much easier life now that the pandemic is under control,” agreed Tina and Ken. “We still celebrate the fact that we’ve had so many days with no new infections and no deaths. The community is very proud of itself.” 

I asked Tina and Ken how they will be spending their Christmas holiday. “We’re leaving on Dec. 16 to drive to our son’s home,” they said enthusiastically. “Then we will all get into our caravan and drive together for three days to Brisbane (more than 1,800 kilometers away) to spend the rest of the year with all of our kids and grandkids together. And we will stay as long as we can,” they laughed.

I believe that it is possible for the Ojai Valley to strive for similar success. Polls show that most of us support wearing masks and other mitigation measures. Polls also show that many of us are concerned that social-distancing guidelines will be relaxed too quickly. Our recent guidelines also set limits on nonessential travel.  

Stay committed everyone. Guidelines are difficult to follow, but proven to work. Support each other. We can also continue to support our local economy by ordering take-out from our restaurants and shopping locally for the holidays. Be creative, yet cautious, in spending time with your family and friends. Together we can keep our valley a much safer place to live until this pandemic is brought to an end.

Stay positive, stay safe and stay well.

 

— Dr. Jim Halverson is a longtime Ojai physician who writes a weekly column on COVID-19 for the Ojai Valley News.