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COVID-19: A second challenging year

COVID-19 first reached Tasmania more than a year ago. Since then we have faced a threat on a scale that almost no-one now alive has experienced. We have been asked to think and act differently as we go about our lives; a range of restrictions have affected familiar and important activities.

COVID-19: a second challenging year

Last Updated: 03 Jun 2021 10:24am

Dr Mark Veitch

Director of Public Health

Dr Mark Veitch Director of Public HealthWe have experienced the harms of COVID-19 in Tasmania. In the outbreak of 138 cases in the North West in April 2020, 10 people died. After temporary hospital closures, healthcare rearrangements, a regional lockdown, and intensive contact tracing, the North West emerged as a community free of local transmission.

The measures Tasmanians followed throughout autumn and winter 2020 helped prevent COVID-19 from gaining a foothold in our community.

Months have passed without cases of COVID-19 in the Tasmanian community. This experience is rare. It is demanding and tiring to continue to act in ways that practically and emotionally support and protect each other. It may seem I am asking Tasmanians to do this in the face of an unclear threat, but the threat is clear and near. Recent global experience shows us that new epidemic spread can be catastrophic. The experiences of most mainland capital cities in recent months demonstrated the consequences for families, businesses, and communities of even a moderate number of cases in large, freely and closely mixing populations.

We currently have few restrictions on our day-to-day lives. Life can seem almost normal, and we all deeply want it to be so. The remaining restrictions are regularly reviewed, including considering their purpose, the risk of COVID-19 they address, and evidence in other jurisdictions.

Right now, most of the world lacks immunity to COVID-19.

As a child I was aware of the harms of then-common childhood diseases, and knew families affected by polio and rubella. I can recall the relief in my family when vaccines became available in the 1960s and 1970s that would protect me and my brother from these threats (though we did not share the enthusiasm for needles at the time).

Immunisation against COVID-19 protects you, and by protecting yourself, you protect others.

The COVID-19 vaccines being used in Australia have passed the rigorous approval process of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). This process follows development of vaccines by established manufacturers, and trials of vaccines to determine their safety and how well they work. The trials proceed through phases with increasing numbers of participants, eventually involving tens of thousands of people.

No vaccine is perfectly effective for everyone against all consequences of an infection. All vaccines have side effects. These are mostly mild, but rarely they may be serious, as is the casewith other medicines many of us take each day.

The vaccines currently available in Tasmania are the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. Each use different biological materials, but both result in our bodies developing an immune response to a critical part of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Both have been shown to be highly effective at preventing the worst complications of COVID-19, including hospitalisation and death. Cases of mild infection may still occur among some vaccinated people. We know this occurs with other vaccines such as the influenza vaccine; despite this, the vaccine is still working to prevent complicated and fatal illnesses.

We have surveillance in place for adverse events following immunisation (AEFI). Reports of a clinical event that occurs in the hours, days or even weeks after vaccination can be made to the TGA or to the Tasmanian Department of Health. Unanticipated AEFI can sometimes be detected only when a vaccine has been given to millions of people. This has occurred recently with the identification of a rare new clotting condition which may develop following vaccination with AstraZeneca. Thrombosis with thrombocytopaenia syndrome (TTS) is rare, but serious.

This is why the Pfizer vaccine is now the preferred vaccine for people aged under 50.

The Tasmanian COVID-19 vaccination program has begun well, first targeting Tasmanians most at risk of severe COVID-19 and those caring for them, and those more likely to encounter COVID-19 through their work or other circumstances.

The vaccine rollout is proceeding in phases. Vaccines will be free for all eligible Tasmanians. I recently received my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine and I urge every Tasmanian to get vaccinated when you can. The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines brings hope for a safe future. This may be a future in which COVID-19 is still about, but not threatening or limiting our lives.

Right now, COVID-19 remains a threat to our state.

To keep on top of COVID we need to keep doing basic things: keep a distance from others when we can, wash or sanitise our hands, check in when visiting venues, stay at home when we are unwell and get tested when we have symptoms.

As much as I hope they are not needed, new restrictions will have an important role if our safety is threatened in the coming months by community spread or an outbreak of COVID-19. Mainland Australian jurisdictions have controlled outbreaks using brief and restrictive lockdowns to limit spread and enable contacts to be traced, quarantined, and tested.

With this possibility in mind, I encourage Tasmanians to keep a few face masks at home. You will then also have them available for other situations, such as when you are at an airport, or flying, and if you have cold or flu symptoms and need to have a COVID-19 test or seek healthcare.

Tasmanians live in a beautiful island, a remote and uncrowded place that has weathered the challenges of COVID-19 well. I am grateful to live here. I know the character of the Tasmanian population is up to the challenges we will face over the coming months as we progress towards recovery from this pandemic.