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Lockdown in Australia's Victoria leads to fall in Covid-19 cases amid ongoing search for 'patient zero'

SYDNEY – A strict lockdown in Australia’s state of Victoria appears to be successfully combating a recent surge in Covid-19 cases, but questions remain about the so-called “patient zero” who sparked the massive outbreak.

Victoria recorded 182 new coronavirus cases and 13 deaths on Saturday (Aug 22), a significant turnaround from a peak of 694 cases on Aug 5.

Earlier this month, the state closed schools and most businesses and imposed a six-week lockdown, including a curfew in Melbourne from 8pm to 5am. The lockdown is due to end on Sept 13.

However, Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews urged residents not to be complacent, saying the current outbreak needs to be suppressed before restrictions end.

“We have to see it as an ultra-marathon,” he said.

“You’ve got to crush the second wave before we open up… otherwise, you’re just beginning the process of an inevitable third wave, the costs of which will be even greater.”

Outside Victoria, only the states of New South Wales and Queensland out of the country’s six states and two territories recorded new cases on Saturday, with nine cases each. In total, Australia has recorded 24,602 cases and 485 deaths. Of these, Victoria had 18,029 cases and 398 deaths.

Australia had largely eliminated the virus until an outbreak began spreading quickly through Victoria in late May and early June. The state’s surge has prompted a search to find “patient zero” – the person who first contracted the virus and then spread it in the community, resulting in hundreds of deaths and a shutdown of the state’s economy.

Initially, the source of the spread was believed to be a security guard at a hotel in Melbourne where international arrivals were being quarantined. There have been reports that the guard may have had a sexual relationship with one of the hotel guests or may have shared a compromised cigarette lighter.

The claims have led to intense political attacks on Mr Andrews for failing to ensure safe procedures at quarantine hotels. He has been criticised for allowing the use of private security guards at these hotels, rather than using the military and police, and then failing to ensure that the guards were properly trained.

But suggestions have now emerged that patient zero may have been a hotel night manager rather than a security guard.

According to leaked Government e-mails obtained by The Age newspaper, the manager contracted the virus and spread it to five security guards, who spread it to their families. It was not clear how the manager was infected. The hotel said in a statement that the person did not pass on the virus to hotel colleagues or family.

So the quest to find the original case continues. But the government has admitted that procedures at the quarantine hotels were inadequate and that some security guards breached physical distancing rules.

Victoria’s state opposition has described the hotel quarantine scheme as “scandal-ridden” and “shambolic”.

Mr Andrews has ordered an inquiry into the scheme and itis due to deliver its findings in November.

Public health experts say that finding the original source is important for understanding the causes of the outbreak, but added that the current obsession with identifying the person has turned into a “political blame game” when the focus should be on ensuring the prevention of further mistakes.

Professor emeritus Gerry Fitzgerald, from the Queensland University of Technology, said the breach at the hotel showed that the virus is “highly infectious” but the first case could have resulted from an understandable mistake or misstep.

“Everybody wants someone to blame,” he told The New Daily website. “Sometimes it is bad luck. The best thing you can do is minimise the risk.”

Professor Adrian Esterman, from the University of South Australia, said the effort to find the source should be focused only on boosting prevention.

“The current finger-pointing is not only counterproductive – it could easily see the night manager designated as patient zero unfairly stigmatised, when that person is most likely blameless,” he wrote on The Conversation website.

Mr Andrews said earlier this month that he was unsure patient zero will ever be definitively identified.

“I think that whole notion that we could necessarily have, to that degree of certainty, clarity about one particular person, I don’t know the science would ever lead you to that,” he said. “It could, but it may not.”

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