Last April, as coronavirus was taking hold in Australia, Northern Territory health authorities issued a stark warning: community spread of the deadly virus would be inevitable in the NT.
But a year to the day since the NT recorded its first case — a 52-year-old tourist who had been overseas before flying from Sydney to Darwin — the pandemic has so far proven that prediction wrong.
The NT is one of the last Australian jurisdictions to have avoided community transmission, and it also boasts the nation’s lowest caseload and no deaths.
(The ACT has recorded one case from an unknown source, but health authorities do not regard this as community transmission.)
The majority of the NT’s 106 cases have been linked to the federal government’s repatriation program. Its locally acquired cases — all linked to interstate travel — can be counted on one hand.
What is behind the NT’s success in its first year battling coronavirus?
Experts say it is a combination of effective public health controls and the territory’s unique demography — and a healthy dose of luck.
Part science, part environment, part luck
Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist with La Trobe University, said the NT government’s decision to act swiftly and decisively throughout the pandemic — including by closing the border for several months — effectively stamped out risk.
He said several factors unique to the NT had also played out in its favour, including its small population, low population density, and reduced air travel compared to major cities.
On top of that, he added, was a strong element of chance.
“I think this is one of those situations where chance plays a huge role, and sometimes we underestimate the role of chance,” he said.
“When you have low transmission, which we’ve sort of had in Australia in general, randomness and random effects and chance play an even greater role.”
Hugh Heggie, the NT’s Chief Health Officer, agrees luck has played a role — including when the 52-year-old tourist visited a busy Darwin hotel and grocery store before testing positive.
“We do also fortuitously have an outdoor lifestyle, unlike [where the virus originated] in China, where there’s very dense living in high-rise apartments.”
The ‘gold standard’ quarantine facility
Asked what he thought the year’s major risks had been, Dr Heggie pointed to the efforts to repatriate Australians from the coronavirus-stricken city of Wuhan and the Diamond Princess cruise ship via Darwin.
But he said two early choices — the decision to quarantine those people at a former workers camp south of the city, and to engage specialist health teams — helped keep those risks at bay.
Deakin University epidemiologist Catherine Bennett agreed.
She said the Howard Springs facility, which has been deemed the ‘gold standard’ of quarantine, is a key part of why the NT dodged hotel quarantine-related outbreaks that prompted lockdowns and restrictions in other states.
The same factors allowed the NT to play a leading role in the ongoing effort to repatriate stranded Australians on federal government-organised flights.
“So less pressure, better natural facilities available that could be adapted for quarantine, and stopping that spread into the community via the quarantine workers or people being released too soon,” she said.
“All those things have been kept with a really tight lid on, and that’s what’s protected the community from these wider spread transmission events.”
Professor Bennett also agreed the NT had also been lucky, pointing to a surge in quarantine demand in Alice Springs last year that saw hundreds of people arriving from a hotspot overload available facilities.
Outbreak not ruled out
Does the NT’s success so far mean its contact tracing and public health systems lack the experience of other states?
Professor Bennett did not necessarily believe so.
“Sometimes you just don’t know until the system’s tested. But the good news Australia-wide is that our chief health officers are all working together, and so other states are learning from states that have had more community transmission,” she said.
“The other [risk] is, the less exposed people have been to the direct and indirect impacts of COVID, the less front-of-mind it might be for the importance of vaccines.”
Dr Heggie said the early stages of the vaccination rollout were progressing as planned.
But he has repeatedly warned about the risk complacency poses to the NT, and said the battle to prevent community transmission is not over yet.
“I can’t say we won’t, because there’s always the possibility of breaches of infection control, and there’s also sometimes breaches of behaviour,” he said.
“We’ve got a way to go, for most of this year, to continue to protect us.”
Thank you for spending your time with us on My Local Pages. We hope you enjoyed seeing this news update about the latest NT news items published as “The Northern Territory survives a year of coronavirus without death or outbreak”. This story was posted by My Local Pages Australia as part of our local news services.
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