Controlling the Nukes: This Military Plane Could Easily Destroy the World


Here’s What You Need to Remember: The E-6 platform should remain in service until 2040 thanks to a service-life extension program and continual tweaks to its systems and radios. While the Mercury has demonstrated its usefulness as an airborne communication hub for supporting troops in the field, the airborne command post will be considered a success if it never has to execute its primary mission.

In a military that operates Raptor stealth fighters, A-10 tank busters, B-52 bombers and Harrier jump jets, the U.S. Navy’s placid-looking E-6 Mercury, based on the 707 airliner, seems particularly inoffensive. But don’t be deceived by appearances. Though the Mercury doesn’t carry any weapons of its own, it may be in a sense the deadliest aircraft operated by the Pentagon, as its job is to command the launch of land-based and sea-based nuclear ballistic missiles.

Of course, the U.S. military has a ground-based strategic Global Operations Center in Nebraska, and land-based transmitters for communicating with the nuclear triad. However, the E-6’s sinister purpose is to maintain the communication link between the national command authority (starting with the president and secretary of defense) and U.S. nuclear forces, even if ground-based command centers are destroyed by an enemy first strike. In other words, you can chop off the head of the U.S. nuclear forces, but the body will keep on coming at you, thanks to these doomsday planes.

The E-6’s basic mission is known as Take Charge and Move Out (TACAMO). Prior to the development of the E-6, the TACAMO mission was undertaken by land-based transmitter and later EC-130G and Q Hercules aircraft, which had Very Low Frequency radios for communication with navy submarines. Interestingly, France also operated its own TACAMO aircraft until 2001, four modified Transall C-160H Astarté transports, which maintained VLF communications with French ballistic-missile submarines.

The first of sixteen E-6s entered service between 1989 and 1992. These were the last built in a very long line of military variants of the venerable Boeing 707 airliner, in particular the 707-320B Advanced, also used in the E-3 Sentry. Bristling with thirty-one communication antennas, the E-6As were originally tasked solely with communicating with submerged Navy submarines. Retrofitted with more fuel-efficient CFM-56 turbojets and benefiting from expanded fuel tanks, the E-6A could remain in the air up to fifteen hours, or seventy-two with inflight refueling.

To use its Very Low Frequency radios, an E-6 has to fly in a continuous orbit at a high altitude, with its fuselage- and tail-mounted VLF radios trailing one- and five-mile-long wire antennas at a near-vertical attitude! The VLF signals can be received by Ohio-class nuclear ballistic-missile submarines hiding deep underwater, thousands of miles away. However, the VLF transmitters’ limited bandwidth means they can only send raw data at around thirty-five alphanumeric characters per second—making them a lot slower than even the old 14k internet modems of the 1990s. Still, it’s enough to transmit Emergency Action Messages, instructing the ballistic-missile subs to execute one of a diverse menu of preplanned nuclear attacks, ranging from limited to full-scale nuclear strikes. The E-6’s systems are also hardened to survive the electromagnetic pulse from nuclear weapons detonating below.

Between 1997 and 2006, the Pentagon upgraded the entire E-6A fleet to the dual-role E-6B, which expanded the Mercury’s capabilities by allowing it to serve as an Airborne Nuclear Command Post with its own battle staff area for the job. In this role it serves as a backup for four huge E-4 command post aircraft based on the 747 Jumbo jet. The E-6B has ultra-high-frequency radios in its Airborne Launch Control system that enable it to remotely launch land-based ballistic missiles from their underground silos, a task formerly assigned to U.S. Air Force EC-135 Looking Glass aircraft—yet another 707 variant. The E-6’s crew was expanded from fourteen to twenty-two for the command post mission, usually including an onboard admiral or general. Additional UHF radios give the E-6B access to the survivable MILSTAR satellite communications network, while the cockpit is upgraded up with new avionics and instruments from the 737NG airliner. The E-6B can be distinguished in photos by its additional wing-mounted pods.

The Mercury’s abundant communications gear allows it to perform nonnuclear Command, Control and Communications (C3) operations as well. For this reason, E-6s have at times been deployed to Europe and the Middle East to serve as flying C3 hubs. For example, VQ-4 was deployed in Qatar for three years from 2006 to 2009, where it relayed information such as IED blast reports and medical evacuation requests from U.S. troops in Iraq who were out of contact with their headquarters.

Two Navy Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadrons currently operate the E-6: VQ-3 “Ironmen” and VQ-4 “Shadows,” both under the Navy Strategic Communications Wing 1. These have their home at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, but also routinely forward deploy out of Travis AFB in California and Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. At least one E-6 is kept airborne at all times. E-6s on the submarine-communication mission often fly in circles over the ocean at the lowest possible speed—for as long as ten hours at a time. Those performing the nuclear command post mission typically remain on alert near Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. The E-6’s nuclear mission has also made its operations occasional fodder for conspiracy theorists and foreign propaganda outlets.

The E-6 platform should remain in service until 2040 thanks to a service-life extension program and continual tweaks to its systems and radios. While the Mercury has demonstrated its usefulness as an airborne communication hub for supporting troops in the field, the airborne command post will be considered a success if it never has to execute its primary mission. The heart of nuclear deterrence, after all, is convincing potential adversaries that no first strike will be adequate to prevent a devastating riposte. The E-6s are vital component in making that threat a credible one.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

This first appeared in December 2017. It is being republished due to reader interest.

Image: Wikipedia.

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Scientists investigate if new Covid strain spreads more easily in children – Channel 4 News


Scientists are urgently looking at whether the new strain of coronavirus is spread more easily in children.

Although there is no suggestion it’s more dangerous, experts want to know whether children are as susceptible as adults.

In today’s other developments, there were 36,804 new cases recorded, and 691 deaths were reported in the last twenty four hours – the highest figure since the end of April. A total of 68,307 people have now died.



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RCMP could easily identify officers accused of sexual assault, says former Supreme Court justice


The Royal Canadian Mounted Police is aware of — or could at least easily identify — the officers accused in some of the most egregious cases of sexual assault in the service, former Supreme Court of Canada justice Michel ​Bastarache told MPs tonight.

“I think the more serious ones usually are more easily identified,” said ​Bastarache, who was appointed as the independent assessor in the force’s historic Merlo-Davidson sexual assault settlement. He was speaking before a parliamentary committee meeting earlier this evening.

“Like the Catholic Church, they just move them to another parish. I have a list [of RCMP officers] who have been found guilty up to 15 times. Those people have been promoted.”

His appearance before the standing committee on national security comes two weeks after he released a scathing report on sexual harassment in the RCMP. Bastarache was tasked with independently assessing the claims made as part of the Merlo-Davidson settlement.

These aren’t a few bad apples. These are hundreds of bad apples.– Michel Bastarache

That settlement, named after lawsuit plaintiffs Janet Merlo and Linda Davidson, covers those who were harassed while working for the RCMP during or after September 1974. They include women who experienced sexual harassment and gender or sexual orientation-based discrimination while working for the Mounties. In total, the federal government paid $125,266,500 to the claimants.

“The level of violence and sexual assault that was reported was shocking. Indeed, over 130 claimants disclosed penetrative sexual assaults,” Bastarache’s report says.

Over the past four years, Bastarache said, he and his team conducted 644 interviews of current or former female employees of the RCMP.

“Harassment remains present in many areas of the organization. Worse still, disrespectful conduct has been perpetrated and condoned at every level of the hierarchy,” he told the committee.

Former Supreme Court of Canada justice Michel Bastarache is seen outside Federal Court in Toronto on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press)

“I often heard that there were many good members trying to do a good job in a difficult environment and I’m sure this is true, and that many members are well-intentioned and trying to do the right thing. But the reality is that even honourable members and well-intentioned leaders have been required to conform to, or at least accept, the underlying culture.”

Lucki says such behaviour won’t be tolerated 

Bastarache said he has a list of men in the RCMP who have been accused of, and found to be responsible for, harassment. One of the conditions of the assessment process, however — which was intended to make it easier for women to come forward — was that the report could not name those accused. 

“I think that it’s quite easy to identify some of them because, as I said, when they’re found guilty of harassment, they’re moved around,” he said. 

“It’s easy to see who has been changed three or four times and has been in trouble three or four times … These aren’t a few bad apples. These are hundreds of bad apples.”

CBC News has asked the RCMP for comment but has not heard back yet.

When the report was published late last month, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki promised sexual harassment in the service would not be tolerated.

“The facts are, despite all the reports, recommendations, and changes over the last three decades, this behaviour continues to surface,” she said.

“It must be stopped. It will not be tolerated.”

WATCH | ‘Shocking’ accounts of harassment, violence within RCMP detailed in report

There are calls for an independent review following a report into sexual harassment within the RCMP. The report’s author described the accounts as “shocking” and as signs of “systemic” problems with misogyny, racism and homophobia. 2:28



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Tens of Thousands of Illegally Received Votes Totally and Easily Changing Pennsylvania Results, Trump Says


US election 2020

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While the vote counting still continues in the US, several key states, most notably Pennsylvania and Georgia, have recently flipped from leaning towards Trump to Biden over the course of the last few days.

US President Donald Trump has renewed his criticism of the practice of the state voting authorities receiving mail ballots after the polls closed on 3 November, arguing that these ballots were counted illegally and drastically changed the results of the election there, which are yet to be officially announced.

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Winter will help COVID-19 spread more easily, experts say — here’s what they suggest you do about it


Canada is heading into its first winter of the COVID-19 pandemic, and some experts say the change in seasons will serve the coronavirus that causes the illness well.

Cold weather affects viruses themselves in two major ways: through temperature and humidity, said Dr. Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s faculty of information.

When a virus is exhaled, it begins to break down right away, Furness said. But the colder it gets, the slower that process is.

“Instead of dying, perhaps, in minutes on a hot summer day, in freezing temperatures, it will last essentially — as far as we know — indefinitely,” Furness said. “It goes from being quick-dying to being immortal, based on temperature.”

Winter weather can also help the virus stay aloft longer and travel farther, he said — because of the drier air that typically comes with lower temperatures, and how that affects the respiratory droplets we exhale.

“When the droplet you exhale comes out in humid weather … it gets bigger. It attracts water and falls to the ground,” Furness said. “But in really dry, cold air, the opposite happens. The droplet evaporates, it gets lighter, and that happens very fast.”

WATCH | Doctors answer questions about what places are higher risk for COVID-19:

Two infectious disease doctors answer viewer questions about high-risk settings for COVID-19 transmission and how data about transmission could help people make decisions about how to live their lives. 6:11

Then there’s the effect the weather has on people.

Cold weather pushes people indoors, Furness said. It also means we don’t have our windows open, meaning our living spaces are won’t be as well ventilated as they other at other times of year.

“If you have enough people in a poorly enough ventilated space, [like] holiday time in the winter … that’s sort of the perfect storm for virus transmission,” he said.

“It pushes people exactly to where the virus moves very, very well — between people in close quarters.”

The dry air also makes our bodies more vulnerable to pathogens, such as the new coronavirus, by drying out the protective mucus membrane that lines our respiratory tracts, said Dr. Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, an expert on microbial infections.

“This mucus membrane actually traps these pathogens, and as the air moves out, these pathogens are expelled,” said Golemi-Kotra, who is also an associate professor in York University’s biology department.

“At low humidity, this membrane becomes dry … so it’s much easier, now, for the pathogens to get access to the respiratory tract and infect us.”

That’s the bad news. Here’s what these experts suggest you can do about it.

Mind your mittens

“First of all, avoid touching your face with mittens,” Golemi-Kotra said.

Your gloves or mittens could come into contact with a lot of high-touch surfaces as you go about your day, so be careful with them. Gauge your daily activities and treat your mitts or gloves accordingly, she advised.

Cold weather pushes people into spaces that are often crowded and poorly ventilated — environments where ‘the virus moves very, very well,’ says Dr. Colin Furness. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

If you don’t wear them long or contact many high-touch surfaces, it’s enough to let them sit for several hours in a safe area before re-wearing, she said. Studies show the virus’s stability in porous materials like cotton is low, she said — around three hours. If your mittens are wet, the effect of drying out has also been shown to reduce the virus’s stability.

But if you’re wearing gloves or mitts for long stretches of time or coming in contact with many high-touch surfaces — if you work outside, for example, or have a long commute on public transit — you should wash them daily, she said.

You could also throw winter gear in the dryer, Furness suggested. He argues it’s unnecessary to go the full washing route, since a dryer’s heat can kill most or all of the virus.

If you’re certain your gloves are all natural fibres, you could even stick them in the microwave, he added.

“You need to make sure there’s no synthetics in there,” Furness said. “Mittens don’t come with a label that says ‘microwave safe.’ But if you know, for example, that they’re all wool … then the microwave would be great.”

Get your flu shot

If you’ve never gotten a flu shot before, Furness said this is the year. to start It’s a critical tool to help contain flu season and keep pressure off health systems — plus, getting sick from the flu could make your body more vulnerable to COVID-19.

To keep yourself healthy, Golemi-Kotra also recommends using a humidifier in your home or office to help counteract the effect of dry winter air on your mucus membrane and boost your immune defence.

A needle and syringe used to administer the flu shot in shown in Virgil, Ont., ON Oct. 5. Getting the flu could make your body more vulnerable to COVID-19, according to some experts. (Tara Walton/The Canadian Press)

Not all experts are confident consumer humidifiers will make much of a difference. Dr. Christopher Labos, an epidemiologist and cardiologist, told CBC News earlier this month the positive effect may not be significant, although he said it’s not likely to have a significant negative effect, either.

“This virus is very contagious, and we are looking at any measures that can sort of reduce the transmission or reduce the exposure,” Golemi-Kotra said.

Scarves likely OK over masks, but wet masks not effective

If you’re wearing a mask and a scarf at the same time, Furness said it should be fine to let your scarf cover the mask. But he stopped short of saying a scarf could stand in for a mask, even if worn correctly.

“There are scarves you can see through and there are scarves that are heavy knit,” he said. “The answer … will depend entirely on how the scarf is made.”

There’s still a lot scientists don’t know about how homemade masks will perform in winter, Furness said. 

Some research suggests a wet mask may be less effective, Golemi-Kotra said, so condensation from your breath outdoors could be an issue. Outside, physical distancing should lower your risk even without a mask’s protection, she said, but being mindful of a wet mask is something to keep in mind if you’re at a crowded bus stop, for example. Make sure you stay two metres apart from others.

Until the data on masks in winter comes in, Furness seconded the advice for extra caution.

“I think, ultimately, what the second wave is going to look like is going to be very much dependent on how effective masks are as temperatures drop,” he said.

“I think until we have more data, I would like to urge everyone to be just really cautious, you know, to take that extra couple of feet, step back when you’re hanging around outdoors — to not assume that what was safe in the summer is safe in the winter.”



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8 Fun Science Experiments You Can Easily do at Home


Citizen Science Salon is a partnership between Discover and SciStarter.org.


Around the world, millions of kids are headed back to school in a totally different way. Classes are online. Teachers talk to students in virtual classrooms. And parents are often left looking for new, hands-on science learning opportunities.

We’ve got your back. Here are eight fun and easy science experiments that you can do at home with kids of all ages. What’s more, each of these science projects ties into real-life research efforts through citizen science, where volunteers help experts collect and analyze data. 

Make Wild Sourdough

A recently-fed sourdough starter bubbles with activity from natural yeast. (Credit: Wild Sourdough Project)

It seems like the whole world is baking homemade sourdough bread right now. Sourdough took on broad appeal when the baker’s yeast disappeared from store shelves. Unlike other baking projects, sourdough doesn’t need store bought yeast. Instead, it’s made with sourdough starter. 

If you have flour, you can easily experiment with making your own sourdough starter. Wild sourdough starters tap into the abundant yeast in our homes and puts them to work making delicious bread. When it comes to science experiments you can do at home, few could be more delicious and rewarding than this one. You’ll also be helping scientists out along the way.

The Wild Sourdough Project is a global science experiment that hopes to discover how sourdough starter communities form over time. The team behind the effort is hoping to unravel how factors like geography and different kinds of flour affect the yeast communities. Best of all, the effort has a step-by-step guide that lets you learn how to make your own sourdough starter. 


Take Part: Make Your Own Sourdough for Science


Create a Cloud in a Jar 

cloud materials-640x350

All the science experiment materials you’ll need to make a cloud in a jar. (Credit: NASA/JPL)

Clouds are an important and often overlooked driver of Earth’s temperature. They trap sunlight in, but they also reflect it back into space. That role has climate scientists rushing to study our planet’s clouds, and how they’re changing. NASA’s GLOBE Observer: Clouds project taps citizen scientists to provide pictures of the sky, plus observations of cloud cover, type, sky conditions and visibility. That data helps info real science research and verify what satellites are seeing from space.

You can get involved with your kids and enrich the experience by adding lessons about clouds. For example, NASA has added a number of fun and easy ways to learn about climate science and clouds, including science experiments. One of the best related projects is to make a cloud in a jar. This simple science experiment is a powerful way to demonstrate how clouds work. You only need water, ice, a jar, and a few minutes of time. 


Take Part: Join NASA’s Globe Observer: Clouds


Measure Rain and Snow with CoCoRaHS 

CoCoRaHS-300x200.png

The CoCoRaHS project asks volunteers to measure rainfall and snow at home. (Credit: CoCoRaHS)

Fall is approaching fast, which means many of us will soon be at home watching rain and snow out the window. Instead of succumbing to the gloom, why not make that weather into a fun science experiment for your kids? 

The CoCoRaHS weather monitoring program, or Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network, is a network of volunteers who measure and report on precipitation. CoCoRaHS emphasizes training and education, and they even have an interactive website rich in educational resources and even National Weather Service lesson plans you can use at home. 

As a volunteer, you’ll use the same low-cost weather gauges that meteorologists and cities use. Then, when it rains, snows or hails, you’ll submit your precipitation data to the website where you can compare it to others in real-time. That information also helps out the National Weather Service, as well as researchers, farmers, emergency managers — and curious people everywhere. 


Take Part: Join the CoCoRaHS Weather Monitoring Network


Plant a Pollinator Garden

Sunflower and Bee

Pollinators are a critical component of a healthy ecosystem. They also affect 35 percent of the world’s crop production. (Image Credit: USFWS)

Pollinators play a vital role in Earth’s ecosystems, and yet they’re threatened by pesticides, disease, habitat loss and even climate change. That has many people searching for ways to help save bees and other pollinators

There are many options to chip in, but one of the most impactful things you and your kids can do at home is plant a pollinator garden. 

Not only will this serve to help struggling pollinators, it can also serve as a long-term science laboratory at home. SciStarter, the citizen-science group behind this blog post, has compiled an entire group of at-home science projects that can be done from your pollinator garden. You can watch moths, butterflies, bees, hummingbirds and more, then help scientists track their migration across the country. 


Take Part: Plant a Pollinator Garden


Build a Bee Condo

 

california pollinator project

By building a bee condo or planting a pollinator garden, you can participate in a plethora of citizen science projects that ask volunteers to record the creatures they see in their own backyard. (Credit: California Pollinator Project)

If you already have a bumper garden at home, or it’s getting too cold to think about planting just yet, you can still stay indoors and help pollinators. The group behind National Pollinator Week has put together instructions for how you can build a home for native bees, called a bee condo. Unlike domesticated honey bees that live in apiaries, most native, wild bees you find in your backyard actually burrow their homes into the soil or a tree. 

By building a bee condo, you can encourage bees to live nearby and also get a fun, DIY science experiment to do at home. Once it’s up, you can watch what kinds of critters take up residence there and report back on the results for science. 


Take Part: Build a Bee Condo


Scan the Night Sky

night sky person

(Credit: European Southern Observatory/P. Horálek)

Around the world, light pollution from buildings and street lamps is blocking our view of the night sky. Most people who live in cities have never seen a truly dark sky, or the Milky Way. That’s not just bad for humans, it’s also bad for the plants, animals and insects who are disrupted by light pollution. 

If you have a budding astronomy-lover in the house, you can participate in a science project called Globe at Night that aims to create a world-wide measure of light pollution in our night sky. 

For this science experiment, you can start making observations using only a smartphone. You’ll mark the sky’s darkness by how many stars you can see. And you can get a sky quality meter through the project to help record even better data.


Take Part: Measure Light Pollution in Your Community


Measure Water Quality

earthecho

(Credit: EarthEcho Water Challenge)

More than 1.5 million volunteers from across the planet are already taking part in a science experiment to track — and protect — Earth’s waterways. The citizen science effort is called the EarthEcho Water Challenge, and it has users buy a water test kit for about $25, then start collecting basic water data. 

Volunteers record things like water clarity, temperature, pH and dissolved oxygen. That data gets plugged into a large database, where it’s used for real science research and to help protect waterways. 


Take Part: Join the Earth Echo Water Challenge


Study the Vitamin C in Your Juice

space scurvy

The Space Scurvy citizen science project asks volunteers to measure the vitamin C content of their juice. (Credit: Space Scurvy)

Back in the golden age of sailing, sailors worried that they’d get scurvy. A lack of vitamin C during long voyages can cause a host of health problems. Scurvy leaves you weak, causes skin problems and gum disease, and makes it harder to heal. Scurvy can even kill you. This isn’t just an old-timey concern, either. Future space explorers will have to worry about vitamin C as they head off to explore the solar system. And that’s the angle utilized by a fun citizen science project called Space Scurvy

The project asks students to use household items to test the vitamin C content of juices from their schools and homes. The necessary tools for this science experiment should be easy to come by, and the site has fun and simple directions for you to follow.


Take Part: Measure Vitamin C for the Space Scurvy Project


Note: Some of these projects are SciStarter Affiliates, and you can earn credit for your participation by adding your username under “Info & Settings” in your SciStarter dashboard.



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Easily Create a Free Blog on the Blockchain Which Is Impossible to Censor


If you support freedom of speech subscribe to Reclaim The Net.

A new alliance with Protocol Lab’s IPFS system will allow the blockchain firm, Unstoppable Domains, to offer the creation of personal websites more resistant to censorship.

A new movement against internet censorship

This initiative began when Unstoppable Domains co-founder, Brad Kam, realized the enormous amount of censorship on the internet. The most alarming thing is that most of the cases are recent. The arrival of the internet to more people, combined with different social and political outbursts, has caused both companies and governments to indiscriminately censor content that does not suit them. Kam expressed his concern about this and assured that this is a trend that will not stop; in fact, he believes that soon, as technology becomes more accessible, censorship of the conventional internet will be more radical.

That is why at Unstoppable Domains they decided to implement a new function, CoinDesk reports, that would allow users to create content without any restriction. For this, they will have the support of Protocol Lab’s InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) technology.

Introducing dBlog

In this way, the dBlog project was born, a tool with which anyone can create his or her site without fear of censorship. dBlog has basic functions such as inserting videos, texts, images, and much more, but all this is hosted on the 3Box peer-to-peer server, which means that the data is not at a single point that can be blocked.

Due to the large number of domains registered in Unstoppable Domains (more than 200,000), the dBlog project has captured the attention of many people and companies.

Among the most prominent are some cryptocurrency investors, such as CoinShares CSO Meltem Demirors. Demirors says she finds this new technology fascinating for preserving free speech, especially after personally experiencing the Turkish government’s censorship of Wikipedia in 2017.

Brad Kam hopes that over time the service will become highly demanded and used to publish all kinds of content.



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Victoria’s coronavirus surge could easily get away from us. This is the action we need now


Even as Melbourne and surrounds return to lockdown, Victoria has today reported 288 new cases of COVID-19.

We’ve seen outbreaks in hospitals and aged care homes, cases spilling across borders into New South Wales and the ACT, and breakdowns in screening procedures even as state borders slam shut — again.

The reason this is worrying is that unlike in the early days of the pandemic, this time the new cases aren’t imported.

These are people who have caught COVID-19 here in Australia — and in some cases we don’t know where it came from. It’s not just possible, but probable, that there’s more coronavirus spreading undetected.

We’ve had success with containing the virus so far, but at the moment at best Victoria, and arguably Australia, is at edge of a precipice.

At worst, we’ve already fallen into it.

So is it possible to claw back the almost virus-free status we had just a few weeks ago?

Yes, but it will take effort.

What has worked?

What worked in the first phase was shutting borders and putting us into lockdown while testing capacity was developed and put in place.

A man sits in a car and gets a coronavirus test by a woman in full personal protective gear.
Man getting tested for coronavirus at a drive-through testing site in Melbourne last month.(ABC News: Patrick Rocca)

Once there is a certain number of cases or significant community spread, however, the ability of testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine to control infections can be rapidly overwhelmed.

The only strategy that works (in the absence of a vaccine) is physical distancing.

That’s because this virus can spread before symptoms emerge, or from people who may have no symptoms at all, and such people are hard to find.

So we isolate ourselves as much as possible from each other, physically, to minimise the chance of passing on the infection.

Mandatory mask-wearing would be a valuable addition to this distancing regime, because masks reduce the chance of inadvertent spread from people who aren’t sick, but are shedding the coronavirus.

We got away without masks in the first phase because, to the credit of the states and territories, they never had much community spread.

This is no longer the case.

What hasn’t worked?

We must not forget the principle from the start of this pandemic, which served us so well to begin with.

Go in hard, go in early, and beg for forgiveness later when nothing happens — because when prevention works, nothing happens.

The main strategy that doesn’t seem to have worked is abandoning elimination of community spread (some called it eradication) and being content with suppression.

That has meant that the virus never stopped circulating in NSW and Victoria, although it’s likely that some of the Victorian outbreaks would have still occurred because of the leaks from hotel quarantine of overseas returnees.

A woman wearing a mask crosses the wet road in front of a kebab shop and chemist as the sun beams.
Suppression and elimination strategies each come with their own challenges.(ABC News: Margaret Burin)

What also hasn’t worked is advice at a national level from experts who, unlike many in other countries, have resisted recommending mask-wearing as a supplement to distancing when there are outbreaks.

This is linked to these same experts’ continuing resistance to the evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can spread via microdroplets in aerosols over larger distances than 1.5 metres, mainly indoors.

Hand hygiene and keeping a distance of 1.5 or 2 metres is fine for large-droplet spread, directly or via surfaces.

But if you accept aerosol spread as a possibility, then you are really forced to admit that masks are an essential tool for outbreak control.

If we are prepared to go in hard and go in early, then we have to take maximal precautions, not pick and choose.

What’s next?

Some would argue that the pool of experts providing advice at a national level should be adjusted to include specialists with more experience of pandemic and public health control.

The current expertise is skewed towards hospital-acquired infections and to some extent, influenza.

A queue of people outside a hotel
A large crowd queued outside Sydney pub Golden Sheaf on the night Melbourne’s new lockdown came into effect.(Reddit)

The states and territories, meanwhile, need to increase their messaging about testing to ensure anyone with a symptom or who wants a test, for any reason, should have one at no cost, regardless of whether there already seems to be virus circulating.

If the current Victorian strategy is working, we should start to see a decline in community spread during the next week.

But if cases continue to climb, we face a scenario that’s chilling to contemplate.



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