Image from Unsplash by Isaac Quesada
Words by Lilly Litchfield and Tarryn Basden
We live in a tumultuous time. COVID requirements are ever-changing, and it feels like a constant mental battle just to stay up to date. Well, here’s a bit more of an info dump to overload those already-frazzled mental receptors.
Let’s start small with what to expect this semester at UWA:
UWA COVID-19 Rules
As of the seventh of February, proof of full vaccination is required to enter all UWA indoor venues. You just need to fill out a small form on StudentConnect declaring that you are vaccinated and will follow COVID safety plans. Then, just tagging your student card should allow you into all buildings as normal. Simple!
Here’s the most up-to-date info, including a FAQ, but also, be sure to actually read your Uni emails (don’t just swipe and delete like usual. We know you do it!). Masks are still mandatory in indoor areas, but that shouldn’t be anything new.
What are we dealing with?
Now for the speculative doom-and-gloom. Lilly interviewed a source within the Department of Health Support Services about the potential border opening. They asked to remain anonymous, so we’ll call them Edward.
Edward says “We’ve gotta move from pandemic to endemic.” Just in case you weren’t aware, we’re in a pandemic. It’s been repeated enough to be tiresome to hear, but the definition is important. COVID-19 is pandemic, not endemic. Not yet.
Pandemic is the all-hands-on-deck, batten down the hatch’s emergency with all the flashing lights and screaming we’re all too familiar with. Pandemic policy (ought to) accepts no losses and give no quarter in the eradication of a disease.
Endemic is the steady-state pragmatism of living with a disease that isn’t going away. The common cold is endemic. It comes in waves every year. Everyone’s had it, and it’s never going away. We aren’t fighting the common cold; we’re simply mitigating losses from it. Endemic government policy then has to accept some deaths as a given.
“Pandemic is ‘nobody move!’ Endemic is business as usual.” – Edward
Opening the Borders
WA state policy has so far been focused on Testing, Tracing, Isolation, and Quarantine (TTIQ) with no leeway for community transmission. Edward notes that “We’ve had ruthless and effective lockdowns, quarantines, and contact tracing with consistently no widespread community transmissions over and over again.” The quick and effective COVID-19 response in WA has mitigated the effects of the virus to a large degree. It’s difficult to see a negative. We’ve had no widespread infections or outbreaks, and it’s easy to think that nothing’s happening because that’s exactly what it looks like. But a monumental amount of effort has gone into making damn sure that’s the case.
Pandemic responses are intended to contain and eliminate a temporary and transitive threat. Unfortunately, the COVID cat’s so out of the bag that it’s dug out its microchip, gotten plastic surgery, and is sipping margaritas on a Bahamian beach wearing a pair of Groucho Marx sunglasses. A pandemic approach will no longer actually contain and eliminate COVID-19. But what it can do is buy time. Opening the border up will inevitably and almost instantaneously move us into an endemic situation with COVID. Unfortunately, there are three major things missing for a non-disastrous border opening in WA:
1) At Least Ninety-Five Percent vaccination rate.
“Ninety percent is shit.” – Edward
There are a fair few articles analysing how interventions affect COVID-19 spread, hospitalisation, and deaths. Some analyses claim that an immunisation rate as low as 30% can have immense impacts on COVID-19 cases and deaths, when combined with other mitigation measures. However, these measures are still presuming an emergency-oriented response. But we can’t live in an emergency state forever. For a long-term solution to COVID-19, we must look at other diseases that have been around the block.
Australian government targets for childhood immunisation are ninety-five percent, which follows World Health Organisation (WHO)’s measles Herd Immunity Threshold (HIT). COVID-19 has proven troublesome when attempting to calculate its HIT, but a safe estimate is to go with vaccination targets we know work.
The difference between ninety and ninety-five percent seems like splitting hairs, but it’s the difference between one in ten strangers on the train being unvaccinated, and one in twenty. At an average of thirty people per train car*, ninety to ninety-five percent vaccination goes from ‘rather likely’ to ‘alright odds’ for having a single unvaccinated person in a given car, or in a cluster at a concert, or in the Perth malls.
Edward points out that WA has shockingly low Indigenous vaccination rates. As of the sixteenth of February, it’s sitting at sixty-seven percent. The lowest of all the states. Edward says that opening the borders even with the total population vaccination rates at ninety-five percent, but the Indigenous rates where they are, would be catastrophic to First Nations populations.
2) Fast and Scalable Testing
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing takes twenty-four to forty-eight hours to complete. We currently have the capacity for about twenty-thousand PCR tests per day, and opening the borders will almost immediately overload our testing facilities. People will slip through the cracks, and we will start to see long wait times. Rapid Antigen Testing (RAT) however, opens up more options.
Edward says that RATs need to be free, available in buckets in pharmacies, given out by GPs, handed out to everyone. PCR testing is sensitive and will pick up COVID-19 before and after a RAT. But, since RATs simply test for when you have a large viral load, they at least let you know when you’re infectious. If you get a positive RAT, you can re-test each day until you get a negative, by which point you’re likely no longer infectious.
Did you know your household can get 5 free RATs?!
3) Treatment options
It goes without saying, we need treatment options for COVID-19. There are a fair few things being investigated as COVID-19 treatments, but most have had little to no effect. The current ‘treatment plan’ is to try to keep you alive until COVID-19 kills you or it doesn’t. That’s what the ventilators are for, keeping you alive while we wait.
While there is a “National Medical Stockpile” of Sotrovimab – a known treatment for COVID-19 – there is little indication of how supply chain logistics will provide an ongoing supply of treatment options for an endemic. Not to mention that the eastern states would rightly have first dibs on the stockpile.
Without a large supply of treatment options, opening the border could likely be a disaster.
Where to go from here?
We’re currently behind vaccine targets, and our targets are too low regardless. Indigenous vaccination rates are disgustingly low and opening now would be catastrophic for First Nations populations. That’s not taking into consideration our lack of treatment options. We have very few RATs, with no short-term plan to get the sort of stockpile we need. No knowledge of treatment availability, volume, supply, amongst other things for WA. This constitutes very little support for high-risk patients with only 600 ventilators. Keep an eye out for these things changing before the border opens, because we will need all of them.
What we do have is each other, and there are things we can do to protect ourselves. Make sure you get yourself vaccinated and encourage others to do so as well. Follow the advice we know helps to stop the spread.
- Wear your masks (correctly! We don’t want to see noses!).
- Social distance,
- Wash your hands, and
- Get tested if you develop symptoms
- Get your 5 free RATs
It can certainly seem pretty doom and gloom, but at least with the right knowledge we can make informed decisions to keep ourselves, and our loved ones safe.