We’re not out of the woods – Public Health Physician Dr Steven Donohue on the Cairns COVID outbreak

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Public Health Physician, Dr Steven Donohue.

Public Health Physician, Dr Steven Donohue.

Dr Steven Donohue is a Public Health Physician supporting the Tropical Public Health Services in Cairns. Dr Donohue is usually based in the Townsville Public Health Unit and managed the public health response to the 3-day lockdown in Townsville and Magnetic Island in June this year. Dr Donohue talks about the recent cases in Cairns.

Q. Has the Cairns region dodged a bullet?

A. We’re not out of the woods yet.

There’s still a risk that COVID-19 is spreading at low levels in the community. The only way we can know if we have COVID in the region is if everyone who has symptoms, no matter how mild, gets tested.

The three-day lockdown helped us to identify, test and quarantine the majority of close contacts, and they will be out of their 14-day incubation period by the weekend.

Even though we have eased restrictions, we all need to be vigilant and get tested if we’re sick. The virus has not read the memo.

It’s been a fantastic testing response so far. We’ve got lots of options for local testing including drive-throughs and walk-ins and it’s very convenient and easy. It has been an incredible partnership between Queensland Health and the private laboratories and Queensland Police Service to get everyone tested. We’ve processed over 25,000 tests in the past fortnight – however we need to keep at it.

Q. The first case, the reef pilot, was fully vaccinated. How did this impact on the spread of COVID?

A. We know that people who are vaccinated have less symptoms and are less likely to transmit the virus. So, the fact that he was vaccinated was excellent for the Cairns community.

Q. Why didn’t the taxi driver spread the virus to more people?

A. Maybe he did – we still don’t know for sure.

It seems to have been just lucky at this stage that the taxi driver didn’t transmit the virus to other people.

The majority of COVID cases happen from “super spreaders”. Research tells us that about 20% of people infected with COVID become super spreaders who infect lots of people.

It also seems that these two cases weren’t super spreaders - otherwise we’d be seeing a very different situation in Cairns.

People may be super spreaders because of their biology or their habits. People who take precautions are much less likely to spread the virus. There are some people that take social distancing, masks and hygiene seriously - and others may not.

Q. Why do people have to quarantine?

A. Quarantine is a 14-day waiting period for people who may have been exposed to someone with COVID. They may not be sick but may become infectious. We still have lots of people in Cairns who may have been exposed to COVID who are quarantining until their 14 days are up (incubation period).

You can still transmit COVID-19 even if you don’t have symptoms. If you are quarantining at home, you’re less likely to make other people sick. We are all so grateful for people taking quarantine seriously.

You might be at risk because you have symptoms or because you’ve been to a contact location (like in a taxi during the specific times and dates). We’re all in this together so check the contact tracing locations and follow the advice on the website.

If you’re sick you need to isolate until you get a negative test result.

Q. If we get another case what will your team do?

A. If we get a positive test then we spring into action to find out contact tracing locations. Our contact tracers talk to the patient and we list the places they’ve been and their close contacts and then we start tracking everyone down.

We can only contact the people who have provided a phone number or used the check in app. We need everyone to use the Check In Qld app everywhere they go as that helps reduce the risk to everyone because we can act quickly.

Q. What’s your advice for people living in FNQ?

A. Stay vigilant. We know from what’s happened down south that things can change really quickly. Get tested if you’re sick and get vaccinated.

Also use the check in app every time you go to a venue.

Q. What’s do you think will happen with COVID-19 in the future

A. COVID isn’t going away. We are just slowing it down until we can vaccinate more people and to give our hospitals and health services more time to prepare for serious cases.

Everyone should register for a vaccine.

For local advice, check the vaccination locations and operating hours of our clinics here.