Community & Lifestyle

Isolate elderly and chronically ill during COVID-19 + VIDEO

Terry Sim, March 30, 2020

RURAL communities and farmers have been urged by epidemiologist and public health specialist Professor Tony Blakely to isolate and look after their elderly and chronically ill during the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic while herd immunity increases.

In an interview with Lambs Alive founder Jason Trompf informing sheep producers how to manage through the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Melbourne professor said Australia has clearly elected to take the “flattening the curve” approach to the pandemic.

“That means we are going to let this virus spread through the population over some period of time, it will be months, probably more than six months.”

Dr Blakely said as the coronavirus spreads through society it will eventually peter out once 60 percent of more people are infected.

“It’s called herd immunity … something that you guys would understand, that’s what is going to happen.”

But he said young people are not getting coronavirus and generally manifesting symptoms to the extent that they die, as for elderly people and those with chronic disease.

“So accept that the majority of population in each town is going to get this disease, that’s inevitable, accept it, but what we really want to do is to protect our elderly.

“So if we’ve got people over the age of 60 and over the age of 65 maybe… they need to socially isolated.”

This would mean housing the elderly or at risk on a farm separately from the rest of the younger people on the property, and observing proper hygiene, including sanitising any food delivery containers.

“There is no reason why you can’t stand on the lawn and have a good chin wag to them while they are up on the verandah, eight metres away, they should be fine.

“Those sort measures will dramatically reduce it (the risk of viral transmission),” Professor Blakely said.

“If I was your parent I wouldn’t want to be left completely alone for 3-plus months, and I do mean 3-plus months.”

This also applied to smokers, those with high blood pressure, or who have had heart surgery or bad asthma, “that’s one to watch out for too”, Professor Blakely said.

“They are the sort of people that we really want to put somewhere and protect the hell out of them.”

Herd immunity must increase, but take no risks with elderly

Dr Trompf said most farmers work on isolated properties but also have contact with people delivering inputs or picking up lambs and wool for sale, or perhaps a scanner coming to pregnancy scan ewes.

“So we’ve got this traffic going on.”

Professor Blakely said herd immunity needed to be lifted, “which does mean people need to get infected and the officials at the moment are not talking about that, they are just trying to get us all to undertake practices to not get it at all.”

“But it is going to spread and in fact, we need it to (spread) more).

“If we could eradicate it that would be great, but it’s not going to happen, that cat’s out of the bag, it’s going spread.”

“And we don’t want to spread it so slowly that it’s going to take two years to pass, although then we may get a vaccine, but it would be very unpleasant way of living for two years.”

However, Professor Blakely said when people visit the farm, don’t shake their hand and keep your distance for the next few months.

Professor Blakely said Sydney was leading the way with COVID-19 infections and the virus pandemic would probably not going to affect as many rural communities for some time because of their isolation and distance from higher populated centres.

“So you may have a window of opportunity — though I don’t want to encourage complacency – where it takes a while to come through.

“So when it hits your small population of 500 people, it could spread vroom like that,” he said.

“It might be slow to get there, but once it gets there, it could really spread fast.

“So if there is a case in a township, really do look after your elderly.”

Professor Blakely said if the rate of community transmission increases rural people should continue to use practices to minimise the chance of infection.

“But the thing we are not talking about as a country or globally really is – herd immunity means a majority of us need to get infected at some point.”

Dr Trompf said farmers appreciate that message and accepted the concept of herd immunity.

But Professor Blakely said the way the COVID-19 pandemic might play out in rural Australia might be that some towns are affected badly, but the others “don’t get it all.”

“It will probably play out quite differently because of your geographic dispersion, but if you pull back and looked at all the townships in rural Victoria or WA or wherever we are talking about, on average across people probably about 60pc will be infected by the end of this.”

Professor Blakely said the reason people get very unwell with COVID-19 was that the body’s strong immunological response to the virus can cause system breakdown, with a risk of secondary bacterial pneumonia, meaning people need a ventilator and heart support to stay alive.

Teachers over 60 years also need to be careful

Professor Blakely said the COVID-19 deaths around the world have been highly concentrated among the elderly and people with pre-existing chronic conditions.

“But I’m labouring the point of people with chronic conditions who are less than 60 years as well. and this applies to rural schools as well.”

He said keeping schools open was “very sensible for so many reasons.”

“But if you’ve got teachers in that environment who have had quite bad diabetes or have bad lung disease, it is time they got out.

“They can be the ones doing the distance teaching or working behind the scenes, but those sort of people shouldn’t be in contact with children in close proximity, in my view.”

Professor Blakely nodded when Dr Trompf suggested that children could be a “vector” for the disease.

“There has not been one outbreak in a school yet, but doesn’t mean there has been no virus playing in the schools.

“Kids do not get symptomatic with it,” he said, although there will be exceptions.

The virus is more likely to be passed on by someone obviously coughing, but Professor Blakely said there will come a time, as precautionary measure, teachers older than 60 years with a chronic condition should get out of the school environment.

Professor Blakely advised farmers to keep working, isolate the elderly and chronically ill, and monitor the case load in nearby areas and communities.

Professor Blakely and a host of other specialist speakers will be particpating in the free three-part virtual Lambs Alive bootcamp in conjunction with Sheep Central  which starts on 31 March. to enable sheep producers to access the opportunities presented by the low flock number, recent rain and high global demand, while contending with coronavirus impacts.

Register for the Lambs Alive bootcamp here.


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