Large families, essential workers hit in echo of COVID’s second wave

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A lingering coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne’s western suburbs is spreading among large families and essential workers, in a pattern reminiscent of last year’s deadly second wave.

But Victoria’s COVID-19 response commander, Jeroen Weimar, has rejected calls to target the west for more vaccines, despite calls from local mayors and high demand at vaccine hubs.

Cases around the Newport and Wyndham areas made up 46 of Friday’s 79 new infections, leading Mr Weimar to call them a “significant area of concern”.

COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar said transmission was growing among large families and in essential workplaces.Credit:Getty Images

He said the Delta variant was spreading through households of six or more people, as well between colleagues at essential workplaces such as a Hoppers Crossing food distribution centre. A small number of rule breakers were also adding to the spread.

But Mr Weimar said the solution to the “ongoing grumbling transmission” in the western suburbs was not to target vaccines to the area but for everyone to follow lockdown restrictions.

“The virus moves far quicker than a vaccination program can move. So we need to ensure the whole population is vaccinated, not just people who are in the immediate line of fire.”

Vaccine uptake in the western suburbs remains among the lowest statewide. Melbourne’s north-west has the lowest first-dose vaccination rate of 43.1 per cent, according to federal data, followed by the west at 45.6 per cent.

Victoria’s second wave was characterised in the early period by spread among essential workers in Melbourne’s north and west, particularly in workplaces such as abattoirs and food distribution centres.

Most industries, including construction and manufacturing, are operating at reduced capacity since the state government further tightened restrictions a week ago, but essential workers have not been prioritised vaccines, unlike in NSW, where they were given access to additional Pfizer doses from the federal government.

Construction was one of several industries curtailed last week to limit potential spread in workplaces.Credit:Wayne Taylor

Wyndham City Council mayor Adele Hegedich said members of her community was keen to get vaccinated but had been hamstrung by a lack of accessibility.

She said a new state-run vaccine hub at Eagle Stadium in Werribee, opened after lobbying from the council, was consistently reaching its vaccination capacity of 1000 people a day.

“Given our community’s amazing response to vaccinations, we call for the increased supply of vaccine to our community, particularly Pfizer given our average age of 33.”

Cr Hegedich said about 50 per cent of Wyndham’s residents were born overseas. They came from 162 countries and 53 per cent of the population spoke a language other than English at home.

Doctors and epidemiologists said a multi pronged approach was needed to tackle the outbreak in the western suburbs.

Essential workers should be tested regularly to mitigate the spread of the virus, while local groups and businesses should be utilised to encourage the community to vaccinate and reduce mobility.

A drive-through vaccination hub opened at Werribee’s Eagle Stadium this month.Credit:Luis Ascui

“COVID has exposed huge inequity in society,” said Dr Mariam Tokhi, a GP in Melbourne’s west.

“There are huge issues around health literacy in poor communities, and we haven’t been particularly good at engaging people who have struggled to access mainstream services – now we’re playing catch-up.”

“We have to do engagement as well as possible, and it’s really important to get information to people in culturally appropriate ways, using workplaces, community groups, health workers, primary care – every resource that we’ve got.”

Victoria had 44 cases whose source of acquisition was still under investigation on Friday, making up about 7 per cent of 616 active infections.

A new case in Geelong was one of 26 with an unknown source. Mr Weimar said test results from the remainder of the infected person’s six-person household were expected on Saturday.

State Health Minister Martin Foley refused to be drawn on the likelihood of any restrictions easing next Thursday but admitted there were “still some areas of great concern”.

“The western suburbs is disproportionately a community that is full of essential workers and permitted workers. They’re out and about,”

Health Minister Martin Foley was coy on the next step for restrictions for Victorians.Credit:Simon Schluter

Opposition health spokeswoman Georgie Crozier renewed her party’s call for playgrounds to be reopened and the government to come up with a road map for reopening schools, similar to the one NSW unveiled on Friday that details a staggered return from October 25.

“There is no plan here. There is no compassion. There is no hope,” the Liberal MP said.

The Victorian government has released a new advertising campaign targeted at over 60s, encouraging them to discuss getting vaccinated with a doctor or pharmacist.

About 78 per cent of Victorians aged 60 to 69, who became eligible in April, have received one vaccine dose.

Shepparton’s outbreak grew by 10 cases on Friday, including a fully vaccinated worker at an aged care home in Echuca. Mr Foley said the large majority of residents were already fully vaccinated.

In NSW, soaring case numbers have led to non-elective surgery being postponed – a move that was yesterday backed by the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

Asked about Victoria’s elective surgery policy, Mr Foley said: “We’ve always delivered category one, the most urgent surgeries … and with important surgery we put in place a more risk-based framework.

“As a result we’ve seen elective surgery continue full throttle in some parts of the state, and in other parts of the state, as the risk assessment has gone up or down, the elective surgery has gone up or down.”

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