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Local News - Victoria

Impossible Christmas suddenly possible as restrictions ease


“Each of us playing our part to make sure that we protect public health, that we value and protect this precious thing that we have built … It’s incredibly valuable, but it is fragile. And even though these rules are important changes, this virus is not gone.”

Restrictions could ease further before the end of the year, with the Premier flagging ongoing reviews of the state’s coronavirus restrictions, which also include offices returning to 25 per cent capacity, more patrons in cafes and restaurants, universities and TAFE resuming classes and up to 150 people at weddings and funerals.

It’s definitely really exciting not to have to wear a mask. It feels like you are one step closer to freedom.

Zahra Abbass

Some epidemiologists told The Age the state government should consider bringing more people back to offices and increasing gathering size and venue limits ahead of its next review of restrictions on December 6.

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton declared on Sunday he was confident community transmission of coronavirus in the state had now ceased, with no COVID-19 deaths or infections for 23 days.

“That will be an ongoing risk until there is a substantial rollout of vaccines across the world, and that is some months away, at least six months,” Professor Sutton said.

“And we’re not going to get full coverage of vaccinations for all of our international arrivals for an even longer period of time, so we just have to be mindful of these things that we’re going to have in place: distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, cough etiquette. They are our insurance policy for any incursion that may happen into the future.”

Premier Daniel Andrews thanked Victorians for their efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Premier Daniel Andrews thanked Victorians for their efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. Credit:Chris Hopkins

The reversal of the state’s fortunes follows a second wave of coronavirus that claimed the lives of almost 800 people, infected more than 20,000 and cost the economy billions of dollars after the virus was transmitted into the community by guards working on the state’s hotel quarantine scheme for international travellers.

Quarantine settings were again the subject of intense national debate on Sunday, with one of the federal government’s top infection control advisers joining growing calls for the federal government to consider a system where quarantine facilities are placed away from heavily populated areas.

Earlier on Sunday, South Australia’s Opposition Leader urged the state government to put an end to its “medi-hotel” program after an outbreak that began at a quarantine hotel forced the state into a strict six-day lockdown.

Under the new changes to restrictions announced in Victoria on Sunday, indoor religious gatherings have been capped at 150, while up to 300 people will be allowed at outdoor religious ceremonies. And 150 guests will be permitted at weddings and funerals, with a maximum density of one person per four square metres.

Workers will be allowed to return to their offices in limited numbers, although public servants will continue working from home to reduce the number of people travelling to the city. Patron limits on hospitality venues will be increased and higher education students and staff can return to campus.

Zahra Abbass, 25, has spent a lot of time wearing a mask throughout the pandemic, due to her work as a receptionist. She said it would be a relief to know she could go outside for a walk and take it off.

“It’s definitely really exciting not to have to wear a mask. It feels like you are one step closer to freedom in a way, even though the pandemic is not going to end any time soon. There is that sense of relief that you are one step closer,” she said.

The state’s powerful business lobby group, the Victorian Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the government’s announcements.

“It’s beginning to feel a lot like Victoria again and what a fantastic announcement for businesses today, and effectively with the announcements today, every business can get on with doing what they love best,” said chief executive Paul Guerra.

“We look forward to [caps on venues] being scrapped, but for now it’s appropriate. While we’ve done a great job at suppressing this virus, we’re seeing in other states how easily it can come back. So, you know, the limit of 150 is more than what everyone thought we were going to get, so fabulous on the government for bringing that forward.”

Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien welcomed the latest easing of restrictions, but said more rules could have been safely rolled back. He queried the government’s “arbitrary” cap on venues and the decision to prevent public servants from returning to the office.

“It’s been such a long road, it’s been a tough winter, it’s been a tough spring,” he said. “Victorians deserve the announcements that were made today.”

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The Islamic Council of Victoria and Anglican Diocese of Melbourne broadly welcomed the changes to religious gatherings and ceremonies, but urged the government to consider scrapping the cap on venues, arguing places of worship were generally big buildings where people wear masks and can social distance.

ICV vice-president Adel Salman said: “We’re happy about the lifting of restrictions, but we see there’s opportunity to improve things. We definitely appreciate that we’re now allowed 150 indoors, and I think that’s great.”

Bishop Paul Barker said: “You can go to a restaurant to eat without a mask, people often talking a bit loudly, droplets going across the tables. In places of worship, we wear masks and we observe social distancing. We still think the government is not treating people with the utmost fairness.”

Some epidemiologists also suggested limits on venues could be reviewed.

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Professor Catherine Bennett said she would like the focus to shift to increasing the number of workers who can return to the office, and she is advocating for the scrapping of venue caps in favour of density limits when the government reviews restrictions on December 6.

“We know with this virus, the cycle is essentially between workplaces and homes … so that’s where most of the spread happens,” Professor Bennett said. “We want to get people back to work. Holding back on further home visits helps contain this idea of potential outbreaks because you’re just breaking some of those cycles where the virus transmits.”

La Trobe University’s Hassan Vally said: “I guess once we have satisfied the epidemiological criteria for elimination of the virus, the next lot of relaxation of restrictions should see us move to what COVID-normal will be until we have the vaccine.

“For example, this would involve moving towards allowing gathering sizes that we are happy balances risks with benefits, and allowing other ‘high-risk’ places like pubs and gyms to operate in a more viable way. I think mask-wearing where social distancing is not able to occur is here to stay for some time.”

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Professor Tony Blakely said the more Victoria reopened its economy and increased social gatherings, “the more we are a tinder box like Western Australia, where if the virus got in, it would just go boom”.

“I doubt we’ll be opening up the MCG – I think 25 per cent is about as much as we’ll get. With restaurants, I suspect the easing – two square metres per person – I think that’s as far as it will go. This is how we’re going to be functioning going forward,” he said.

The Burnet Institute’s Mike Toole said the changes were “sensible”, but he remained “nervous” about increasing the number of visitors allowed in homes to 15, and then 30 from mid-December.

“My principle is gradual, gradual, gradual … I’ve no way of being able to differentiate on the effects 25 per cent of workers returning to the office versus 40 per cent, it’s impossible to model at this stage, but keeping public servants out of the office is a good idea.”

Professor Adrian Esterman, chair of biostatistics at the University of South Australia, said he found it unusual the Premier had decided to relax mask-wearing rules.

“[It] is a bit strange because they are one of the low-hanging fruit that is easy to use and does not cost the economy,” Professor Esterman said.

“They are cheap. I’m not quite sure why they would suggest people don’t wear them at least for another week.”

With Simone Fox Koob

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Local News - Victoria

Rory thought he was healthy, then suddenly he was about to die


But it sparked the beginning of an incredible 20-person, almost 14-hour operation by Ambulance Retrieval Victoria, one of the longest they’ve done, to save Rory and bring him from Bairnsdale Hospital on life support to The Alfred in Melbourne.

“They suspected I had COVID-19 because of my lungs. I don’t know how many times I got COVID-tested but it’s not pleasant.”

Rory was put into isolation, but his condition rapidly deteriorated.

“In Rory’s case we were concerned both about an autoimmune disease like Wegener’s and about the coronavirus infection,” said The Alfred’s intensive care specialist Aidan Burrell.

Dr Aidan Burrell, The Alfred's Intensive Care Specialist, helped save Rory as his lungs filled with blood due to Wegener's disease.

Dr Aidan Burrell, The Alfred’s Intensive Care Specialist, helped save Rory as his lungs filled with blood due to Wegener’s disease.Credit:Justin McManus

Dr Burrell received a distressed phonecall from a Bairnsdale doctor describing Rory’s condition and was then among a crew who flew out to Rory to assess and treat him.

It was 3.50am on May 8 when Rory’s case was referred to Ambulance Retrieval Victoria, Dr John Daley was the third coordinator in a long chain who began working to organise that crew. ARV is a branch of Ambulance Victoria and conducts complex movements of critically ill patients, which has included sending specialists to New Zealand to treat and transport two Melbourne patients injured in the White Island volcano tragedy in December last year.

ARV receives about 4000 referrals each year, providing specialist advice for patients, about half of whom are moved. An ARV coordinator assembles a crew that could include critical care nursing staff, paramedics, MICA paramedics, flight paramedics and sometimes medical registrars.

Dr Daley first considered sending a helicopter from The Alfred, but the weight of the life-saving equipment and the crew meant that wouldn’t work. So they diverted to a 50-minute flight at Essendon Airport to Bairnsdale Airport, where two ambulances were waiting for them. If they’d got to Rory much later he would have gone into cardiac arrest.

“Our job is often like running an emergency department with a blindfold on, with doctors you don’t know and patients that you can’t examine,” he said.

“Our job is often like running an emergency department with a blindfold on with doctors you don’t know and patients that you can’t examine,” he said.

It keeps him on his toes, Dr Daley says. After nine years with ARV he’s been to most – if not all – of the hospitals, landing strips and ambulance bays in Victoria.

“You just have to get yourself into the space of that hospital,” he said.

COVID-19 has brought its own complexity to ARV jobs.

Communicating with doctors in Bairnsdale was difficult, Dr Daley said, because Rory was in isolation, so Dr Daley couldn’t communicate directly with the people who were in the room performing procedures on him.

“It’s a real challenge, it’s doable, it just slows us down and makes us think a bit more.”

ARV has been central to planning for COVID-19. Director John McClure said the group received funding to expand their state-based platform REACH, a live dashboard that monitors the activity of every single intensive care unit in Victoria, to operate nationally.

“Our coordinators use this platform to decide where the best location is to move a patient in need,” he said.

The Critical Health Resource Information System (CHRIS) was developed in about three weeks and had every intensive care unit in Australia reporting their up-to-date information on bed capacity, ventilation capacity and how many COVID patients they had in their unit.

Rory thanking Director of the ARV director Jason McClure (centre) and Dr John Daley for helping to save his life.

Rory thanking Director of the ARV director Jason McClure (centre) and Dr John Daley for helping to save his life.Credit:Justin McManus

When Dr Burrell got to Rory, he already had a breathing tube in his mouth, was in a coma in deep sedation, and despite that, his respiratory function was still severely impaired.

His lungs had progressively filled with blood, and he was breathing at five to 10 per cent of his lung function.

“We converted him from being on a mechanical ventilator to adding in an additional pump, an oxygenator called ECMO (Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) without that, he probably would have died,” Dr Burrell said.

A special ambulance (Complex Patient Ambulance Vehicle), one of only four or five in the state, transported Rory by road on full life-support from Bairnsdale to Melbourne.

He was later diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called Wegener’s.

Granulomatosis with polyangiitis (also known as Wegener’s) is a branch of vasculitis, in which the body’s own immune system attacks the blood vessels and it can present with bleeding and inflammation from the lungs, nose, throat, sinuses or cause kidney failure. In Rory’s case, it caused severe haemorrhaging in his lungs.


Rory’s life-saving journey

  • May 8, 3.50am: Case referred to Ambulance Retrieval Victoria.
  • 9am: ARV and doctors from The Alfred leave Air Ambulance Base at Essendon Fields.
  • 10.15am: Crew flies for about an hour and arrives at Bairnsdale Hospital.
  • Complex Patient Ambulance (CPAV) drives to Bairnsdale Hospital from Heyfield.
  • 2.40pm: Rory loaded into CPAV vehicle.
  • 5.30pm: He is driven about 280 kilometres to The Alfred, a journey that took nearly three hours.

Dr Burrell said it was a very rare condition.

Rory Smith went from a healthy 22-year-old to his lungs filling with blood. A marathon mission by Ambulance Retrieval Victoria and doctors from The Alfred saved his life.

Rory Smith went from a healthy 22-year-old to his lungs filling with blood. A marathon mission by Ambulance Retrieval Victoria and doctors from The Alfred saved his life. Credit:Pictures: Supplied.

“The hard problem is diagnosing it. People can follow the wrong pathway and get confused about the wrong diagnosis,” he said.

“Over a 10-year time span, we’ve had one other patient with Wegener’s who has needed full ECMO support.”

Rory remained in a coma for two-and-a-half weeks, during that time his 23rd birthday passed without fuss. “I was sedated so I wasn’t aware it was my 23rd birthday and no one could be there, not that I would have known anyway. I think I was in isolation.”

It took about five days for Rory to understand why he was in hospital once he was woken from his coma.

“I actually thought I was in a car accident. I was a bit confused as to why I was at The Alfred, all I remember was going to Bairnsdale hospital,” he said.

He also had to relearn how to eat, to walk and to get his strength back.

“Day by day as I got better, I could understand more and learnt I was going to have this condition for the rest of my life,” he said.

“There’s a lot of unknowns about it. It’s not curable but it is manageable.”

The volunteer paramedic, who had previously met Dr Daley when supporting other critically ill patients, has already had a hard year.

Living in Gippsland, this year his friends and family had dealt with droughts, landslides, the impact of COVID-19 on tourism as well as the Gippsland bushfires – which Rory fought as a CFA firefighter.

“Yeah, it’s been a hectic year for everybody. It affects everybody, especially in small communities.”

Despite being discharged for a day, in which he coughed up blood and had to return, he’s been in hospital for more than seven weeks.

“I keep asking myself, why did I get this disease, but they have no explanation of how people get it. It just happens,” he said.

Rory looks at Dr Burrell and shakes his head telling him just how grateful he is to them, Bairnsdale Hospital and the ARV crew for saving his life.

“I’ve never had anything like that before. I’ve never really been sick ever,” he said.

“I got told my chances of survival were very dim, and I made it and I’m just forever thankful. If it wasn’t for their quick thinking and getting down to Bairnsdale so fast, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

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Australian News

Brisbane Big W closes suddenly


A Brisbane Big W store has suddenly closed its doors in yet another hit to Australia’s flailing retail industry, with 70 staff to be deployed to other locations.

According to a Woolworths Group spokesman, the embattled Calamvale franchise of the discount superstore had “underperformed for some time”.

In a statement the company stressed the move was not related to the current pandemic, rather an ongoing review of Big W, adding that the immediate nature of the closure was due to the terms of the lease in the Calamvale shopping centre.

RELATED: Big W begins to shut the first of 30 stores across Australia

RELATED: Woolworths announces closure of 30 Big W stores

In a statement, a spokesperson said:“These decisions are never taken lightly, however as part of our ongoing network review, we need to monitor the future potential of each store and unfortunately this one has underperformed for some time.

“Under the terms of the lease at Calamvale, we’re obliged to cease trading immediately after giving notice to terminate.

“We regret the short notice it gives to our team and community.”

The store shutting its doors comes amid an ongoing review by Big W’s owner, Woolworths, which announced last year it intended to close 30 stores and two distribution centres.

In January, three Sydney stores were shut down as part of attempt to turn around an $85 million loss in the face of savage competition from the likes of Kmart and H&M.

The Auburn store, along with two others nearby in Chullora and Fairfield, were the first three to go, with the company’s bosses insisting at the time – a few short months before the pandemic hit – that the chain still has a future.

A statement released in January said some pruning of the Big W network would help “to accelerate the path to profitability”.

We do not anticipate that any future store closures would be subject to such tight time frames,” today’s Woolworths statement assured.

“We are committed to doing the right thing by our team and will guarantee the redeployment of all current Calamvale team members to one of many neighbouring BIG W stores; whether they are full time, part time or casual.”

Woolworths Group is yet to name the remaining 26 branches that will close.

The sad news comes as COVID-19 continues to take its toll on the Australian retail industry, with several iconic brands forced to close up shop as the country faces strict social distancing restrictions.



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