Community transmission of the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to increase as the chilly winter season sets in due to reduced humidity, given that the virus survives for longer hours on hard surfaces and Aussies like to huddle together indoors during the cold season.
We all know what winter days are synonymous with a few things—runny noses, heavy jumpers and rounds of hot coffee, but then a fresh concern is emerging over Australia’s low level yet continuous community transmission of the coronavirus.
Since the outbreak of the novice pandemic, the virus and cold are thought to be intertwined, with most of the hard hit nations currently recording their northern hemisphere winter.
So the million dollar question here is, was this a coincidence or could a fall in temperature cause a spike in the cases?
This post will try to demystify the most common questions asked at Storm Assist with regards to winter and Covid-19.
Is Coronavirus A Seasonal Illness?
Statistically, it’s too early to tell given that the available data on the illness is hardly a year old however, considering the characteristics of other respiratory illnesses; epidemiologists claim it’s most likely seasonal.
According to Professor Peter Collignon an expert in infectious diseases at the Australian National University, “ it’s almost beyond doubt that respiratory viruses spread more readily in winter, and Covid-19 is a respiratory virus at the end of the day.”
A recently published research by the University of Sydney shows that a 1% drop in humidity is likely to cause a surge in the number of coronavirus cases by 6%.
“Covid-19 is likely to be a seasonal disease that recurs in periods of lower humidity. We need to be thinking if it’s wintertime, it could be Covid-19 time,” noted Professor Michael Ward, who carried out the study.
“When the air is dry, particles and aerosols tend to be smaller, which means they can float in the air for longer,” Ward said.
Normally, humidity is lowest in the southern hemisphere during the winter period.
This research was done in conjunction with Fudan University in Shanghai, which recorded similar outcome.
“In China, we also saw that decreases in temperature in their northern hemisphere winter also had an effect.”
Mr Ward said this behaviour was consistent with similar viral diseases like SARS and MERS which also spread more rapidly in low-humidity weather conditions.
With the fact that the virus stays longer on hard surfaces in low temperatures, this makes community transmission more prevalent during the colder months.
“We certainly saw that viral stability was enhanced in those conditions where the ambient temperature was lower,” stated Professor Benjamin Cowie, an expert in infectious disease at Doherty Institute.
“That’s why we get so many season flu and colds every winter, it is partly because they are stable and are more able to be transmitted.”
Why Does Winter Accelerate The Spread Of The Virus?
Since humidity and temperature have a significant effect on the rates of community transmission of viruses, there are various human behaviours during winter that promote the spread of respiratory illnesses.
“People are indoors in crowded places with probably less than adequate ventilation because you’re trying to preserve the heat. People huddle together when they are cold,” Collignon noted.
Indoor heating also causes reduced humidity in the air.
“Being huddled around the heater, close to everyone, it’s what you want to do, but a lot of the things we do that are very pleasant in winter give you an increased risk of transmitting viruses,” he advised.
Will Australia See A Spike Of Cases In Winter?
According to epidemiologists, Australia should prepare for a moderate surge in infections, but it’s unlikely that our numbers will move anything closer to the figures recorded in the USA or Europe.
“I think we’ll get more cases but I don’t think we will have uncontrollable spread. The reason being, we’ve got all these things in place already … We have to remember that we’ve got very low community transmission,” Collignon said.
Furthermore, Ward noted that unlike the United States and Europe, Australia is set to reopen during its winter season.
“It is coinciding with sort of potentially the worst time of the year,” he said.
What Should The Government Do To Combat This?
With a potential vaccine years away, the Australian government may be forced to prepare for several winter seasons marred with community transmissions of coronavirus across the population.
Mr Ward advised that restrictions should be adjusted based on a given season.
“I know that message might be hard to get across, but if it is a disease with more cases in winter, maybe there should be stronger restrictions in those months. There certainly should be more surveillance of the disease, in winter,” he said.
In addition, enhancing the availability of sick leave could help to fight seasonal Covid-19 spikes.
What You Should Do To Protect Yourself
While the current measures for curbing the spread of the virus like lockdowns are being eased, individuals ought to take precautions before colder months arrive.
“If everyone did everything they were meant to all the time then we wouldn’t have to increase measures, but the reality is they don’t,” said Collignon.
So, what should you do? Well, you can sanitise or wash hands thoroughly and more often, disinfect surfaces regularly and keep social distance as much as possible and practicable.
Finally, Collingnon urged Australians not to act as though they were out of the woods yet as the pandemic could stick around for the next couple of months.
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