explainer

'Under 40s need to have priority.' An epidemiologist on Sydney's way out of lockdown.

Nearly nine weeks after Sydney's deadly COVID-19 outbreak began, NSW now has more than 8,000 active cases that have been locally transmitted. 

It's leaked into other states and territories and even seeped into New Zealand, who is now in the midst of their own lockdown thanks to a case that originated in Sydney. 

As NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has repeated multiple times this past week, the worst is yet to come. According to some medical experts, NSW could be seeing more than 2,000 cases a day within a month if we continue in this direction.

It comes as the NSW Government has conceded that it will be near impossible to eliminate the Delta strain completely. So, the focus is on the vaccination rollout. At the moment, 55 per cent of NSW residents have had their first dose of the vaccine. 

Listen: What happens if we can't contain COVID-19? Post continues below.

Epidemiologist Professor Mary Louise McLaws has explained to Mamamia's daily news podcast The Quicky exactly what NSW's roadmap out of lockdown should look like.  

Is 60 per cent a good goal of vaccination?

Gladys Berejiklian has said the state needs at least 60 per cent of the eligible population to be vaccinated before some restrictions can be eased. 

However, Professor McLaws tells Mamamia: "That was never a good goal. It was a political statement. It wasn't based on any science. 

"In fact, the Doherty Institute model that came out saying 70 per cent and 80 per cent of adults [need to be vaccinated] is faulty because the transmissibility of Delta is hugely high. 

"Young people haven't had time to be vaccinated," the epidemiologist explains. "They've actually been underserved by the government. And if the government is going to start thinking about opening up at 70 or 80 per cent of the adult population [being vaccinated], they better make sure that they've given young people enough time to access the dosing before they start putting young people's lives at risk."

In the current outbreak, young people, aged between 16 and 39, are the peak transmitters of the disease. 

"The best case scenario would be 95 per cent," Professor McLaws explains. "I think we need to aim high... Let's just aim for everybody to be vaccinated and remind them that the first dose will protect against severe disease, hospitalisation and death... The second dose is where the effectiveness for preventing symptomatic disease and therefore preventing you from being able to transmit it to others kicks in."

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has conceded that 'covid zero' is near impossible in this outbreak. Image: Getty.

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What's our way out of this lockdown?

Professor McLaws says young people now need to be prioritised in the vaccination rollout. 

"We have to ensure that the 16 to 39-year-olds are at the top of the queue for the vaccine," the epidemiologist explains. "So the 40-year-olds to 60-year-olds, who should have had their first dose of AstraZeneca, need to step aside for the under 40s to be prioritised, because they're the ones that will be at the greatest risk of acquiring COVID-19 and sadly, inadvertently, the greatest risk of spreading it. 

"So until enough of them are vaccinated, then it's too risky to lift the restrictions - far too risky."

On Thursday, the Federal Government announced 16 to 39-year-olds will be able to get the Pfizer vaccine from August 30. Young people are currently only able to get the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Students wait to receive the Pfizer vaccine for Covid-19 at Qudos Arena on August 9, 2021 in Sydney, Australia. Image: Getty.

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What else should the government be doing?

The infectious disease expert says the government should not only vaccinate as many young people as possible across NSW, but also protect them financially.

"They should be protecting the young at any cost and certainly protecting their incomes so that they can cooperate and stay at home in the meantime... They need to start finding young people the vaccine and protecting their income so that they're not the only ones doing it tough financially."

There's one more thing she believes the government should be doing, and that's to be "truly transparent when it comes to data".

The epidemiologist says the government should be revealing what proportion of positive cases have acquired the virus while visiting families, what proportion acquired it at work, what proportion were infected while socialising and what proportion became infected at an exposure site. 

"Context and openness about data keeps the government telling the population why they need to cooperate."

Feature image: Getty. 

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