Sutton faces grilling over contact tracing

By | November 23, 2020

Victoria chief health officer Brett Sutton has faced a grilling into the state’s handling of the destructive second wave of the coronavirus.

The parliamentary inquiry focused on contract tracing and the testing regime in Victoria, assessing how the health department responded to the pandemic.

Dr Sutton said authorities began to be overwhelmed in its efforts to trace infections in the community when the state was recording 200 new cases a day at the end of May.

“When you get to hundreds of cases, at that kind of level of 200 or more cases per day, it starts to really challenge your ability to get to all of that timely information for close contrasts … within that critical time period,” Prof Sutton told the inquiry.

“When you get to very, very high numbers it does degrade your ability to get on top of it.”

Liberal MP Georgie Crozier pressed the Department of Health and Human Services members about the “massive issues” identified in contract tracing, which led to the system being overwhelmed as case numbers soared.

DHHS boss Euan Wallace said the department was slowed down by not having a digitised platform to compute case numbers when infections rose dramatically.

RELATED: How Adelaide’s outbreak started

Software company Salesforce pitched a digital platform to the department but this was initially knocked back.

Senior DHHS figures were unable to reveal who made that decision during the inquiry, but Prof Wallace said it was too deeply engaged with the soaring case numbers to implement a new system.

“It’s not a case of a refusal per se. There was a number of approaches made to the department,” he told the inquiry.

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He said the decisions made at the time were based on what would be most beneficial in the immediate term, rather than a more practical option down the line, given the emergency response needed to contact trace across the state.

“The decision was made to make enhancements to the existing platform because those enhancements could be delivered and implemented much faster than buying a brand new platform,” Prof Wallace said.

“As our response evolved, it created the headroom for us to say, ‘OK, the longer-term solution to this is a fully digital product.’”

He said the department was focused on interviewing cases and entering information about contact tracing into their system, and “putting down tools and building a brand new platform just wasn’t the appropriate decision”.

When reflecting on the state’s handling of the second wave, Prof Sutton said the greatest frustration was the lack of national support mechanisms to trace cases when clusters emerged.

He said the health department was struggling to keep up with administrative responsibilities.

“Additional support has been straightened out, and it’s run much more smoothly,” Prof Sutton told the inquiry.

He said South Australia was able to call upon multiple jurisdictions for help handling its outbreak last week but enough hadn’t been done to help Victoria during its second wave.

The inquiry comes as Victoria reported its 24th-straight day of zero new coronavirus cases and no deaths on Monday.

The state has recorded 20,345 coronavirus cases and 819 deaths since the start of the pandemic, with 19,524 people having recovered as of Monday.

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A total of 7261 COVID-19 tests results were received in the past 24 hours, down from the 10,530 on Sunday with a raft of restrictions were relaxed in Victoria overnight as the state moves towards COVID normal.

The number of visitors allowed in homes each day has increased from two to 15, while outdoor gatherings have increased to a maximum of 50.

Masks are no longer mandatory outdoors but must be worn indoors and outdoors where there’s a crowd and it’s not possible to socially distance.

Hospitality venues will also be able to serve more patrons – smaller venues can host one person for every 2sq m up to 50 customers, while larger venues can host up to 150 people per space with a total venue capacity up to 300.

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