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Is the end of the pandemic in sight?

07/04/2022. By Carmelle Wilkinson. 10 min read.

WA Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson

Over the past two years the phrase “based on the best medical advice” has been used numerous times at press conferences by State premiers – but where is this advice coming from?

In WA, it has been Dr Andrew Robertson, our Chief Health Officer and Curtin public health alumnus.

As Covid-19 continues to sweep the globe claiming more than six million lives to date, by comparison our State has managed to weather the pandemic storm – due to our health team’s precautionary and highly effective measures and WA’s enviable geographical isolation.

Standing at the helm of WA’s successful health response to the pandemic, Andy is no stranger to coordinating large scale public health efforts.

During his time at WA Health, Andy has led the Australian Medical Relief team into the Maldives after the Boxing Day tsunami (2004), managed the Department’s response to the Bali bombings (2005) and led a team into Indonesia after the Yogyakarta earthquakes (2006).

His illustrious career was recognised at Curtin’s 2020 Alumni Achievement Awards, where he received a Professional Achievement Award in Health Sciences.

Andy’s genuine desire to help people and his incredible ability to remain calm in high stress situations has proved instrumental in navigating our State through the most significant health crisis since the Spanish Influenza in 1918.

With WA now experiencing a surge of Covid-19 cases, Andy remains focused on the job at hand – keeping our hospitalisations and ICU numbers down and ensuring society remains open and functioning.

Ahead of World Health Day, Andy reflects on the past two years and provides a glimpse into what may lie ahead.

Could the end of the pandemic be near?

WA Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson leads WA’s successful health response to the pandemic.

The World Health Organization officially declared COVID a pandemic on March 11 2020. Now, two years later, is there light at the end of the tunnel?

It has been a tough two years. It’s been constant and unfortunately, it’s not over yet. There have been ongoing demands throughout the pandemic which have changed over time, and it’s been a real mix of having to be flexible as our responses to the disease change and also working closely with our government to look at the best options for responding to the disease given our unique circumstance in WA.

While we are currently experiencing a major outbreak now, we are fortunately not seeing lots of people in hospital and ICU, thanks to the majority of our population being vaccinated. We knew we’d end up with some people in hospital and ICU, but I think it is going as well as it can be given the circumstances. There will always be members of the public who feel we didn’t do enough or did too much, but I’m comfortable with where we’ve landed. We tried to strike a balance between trying to keep society open and functioning and ensuring the safety of the population as best as we could.

There is no doubt the past two years has been incredibly stressful for most people. How do you manage stress, and do you have any tips to share?

Staying connected to family and friends and exercise is important. While I don’t get as much time as I would like during the week to exercise, I try to fit in some form of exercise on weekends. Whether it’s a game of tennis, going for a walk or enjoying a swim. It’s good to get your mind off things, and achieve some normality. Whether it’s reading a book, seeing a movie with a friend, or mowing the lawn.

Andy said walking was great for both physical and mental health.

Everyone remembers where they were when they first heard about a new virus emerging from Wuhan, China. Where were you? And did the alarm bells go off straight away?

The first reports we got were in early January 2020, when we started to hear about a pneumonic disease in China, and to be honest I was a little wary initially. These reports are not unusual, they occur all the time, so there was an element of caution at first. There are often outbreaks around the world and the initial reports can sometimes be far worse than they end up being. I can remember in 2009 with Swine Flu, I was on my way to North America and the reports out of Mexico were quite scary, but as it turned out it wasn’t as bad as initial reports. However, within a week after receiving more information about Covid-19, we had a better appreciation of what was happening, and we realised we had a serious problem.

WA might be experiencing a surge of Covid-19 cases now, but Andy remains focused on keeping our hospitalisations and ICU numbers down.

Did you ever envision we’d still be in this situation two years in? Were you hoping the pandemic would be in our rear-view mirror by now?

I think we all hoped it would be over by now. By mid-last year we were thinking that once we had a reasonable percentage of the population vaccinated, we would be able to manage and control the virus within the capability of our health system, much like the flu. However, that didn’t happen and what we’ve seen since is a rise of the variants which have been in some cases both more transmissible and more serious. Delta in particular was a nastier virus and had the potential to seriously strain health systems if left unchecked. Then came Omicron, and while it is less severe it did highlight some challenges – such as the vaccines might not protect against infection as much as we had hoped. While we were getting a great response to our booster rollout, given it was more transmissible we knew we were going to get outbreaks, that was inevitable. With 99% of our current cases from locals, someone from interstate or overseas are more likely to pick it up here.

What can we expect to see in the coming days? Has WA reached its peak of Covid-19 infections?

It’s very hard to gauge  if we are at the peak or close to it, as figures tend to fall off over the weekend. Some of this might have to do with availability of testing or people preferring not to get tested on weekends and interfere with their plans. It could also be that people start to feel pretty average on the weekend and may only get around to testing on the Monday. So, I would be careful not to focus on figures over weekends. If, however, by early next week we are starting to trend downwards I would be more confident to say that the peak has passed. It’s important to note our trend downwards would be a gradual decline, rather than a plummet. 

Do you think people’s perceptions about public health have been impacted by the pandemic?

I think everyone has a far better appreciation of public health these days and they understand the measures we needed to take to ensure the best outcome for our State. We have one of the highest vaccinated rates in the world and even though case numbers are rising, we are keeping our hospital and ICU numbers low. Yes, there are people who grumble and aren’t unhappy with our decisions – but for the most part everyone in WA has been really accepting and obliging. Lockdowns were never an easy decision, but we knew we needed to act quickly in order to manage an outbreak and get on top of it. If you recall the super spreader event at the Perth Mess Hall earlier this year, that was a Delta outbreak, and we showed that by acting at the appropriate time we could get rid of community spread, and we did.

For the past two years Andy has been at the helm of WA’s successful health response to the pandemic.

And the burning question on everyone’s minds. When will the pandemic end?

Looking ahead it’s hard to predict what will happen, but we know the pandemic will end. Restrictions will go away, and it will be business as usual. What that looks like exactly, we don’t know. There may will be Covid surges over winter, or maybe occasional outbreaks due to a new variant.  While there will be an end to restrictions in due time, I’m sure many people will still likely wear masks in high-risk areas and keep up certain hygiene practices.

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