Nearly 10 weeks into lockdown and NSW's top doctor has warned her state is still yet to hit the peak of its current outbreak, saying infection numbers "may well go way above" 1000 per day.
With 1029 new cases of locally transmitted Covid-19 in the 24 hours to 8pm last night and another three deaths of unvaccinated men from Sydney's west, chief health officer Kerry Chant painted a bleak picture of the months to come for millions across the Australian state.
"My advice to government is that the case numbers may well continue to go up before we see the trajectory of downward transmission," Dr Chant told reporters.
"As I said, the factors that go into that model is how we're adhering to the mobility restrictions, how we're individually behaving.
"We have seen some deterioration in some of those metrics because people are obviously feeling so tired and frustrated with the length and duration of the restrictions … Clearly we're at 1000, and I would indicate to you that the numbers may well go way above a thousand cases."
The reproductive rate of the outbreak — the average number of people each infected person goes on to infect — stands at 1.3, meaning every 10 infected people could potentially spread the virus to 13 others.
Dr Chant earlier this week warned NSW is "here for the long haul".
"We need that number to be below one," NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned last week. "That's what will turn the corner, and until we hit that corner we're going to see case numbers rise."
Leading University of Melbourne epidemiologist James McCaw, a member of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), told The Sydney Morning Herald last Wednesday that, with infections likely to keep climbing over the next fortnight, he would not be surprised if NSW recorded up to 2000 daily cases within a month.
"However it could go lower too. Our models show the possibility of increases and decreases, but I think it's more likely to be well over 1000 and up to 2000 within a month or so," Professor McCaw said.
But the thousands of unlinked cases, particularly across Sydney's west and southwest, were a "deeply concerning" sign that the situation will likely deteriorate rather than improve, he added.
With some restrictions poised to ease in the coming weeks for fully vaccinated residents, Dr Chant said it was now about "trying to really get that mobility down as low as possible, particularly in the local government areas of concern".
"It is critical that the people of southwestern and western Sydney are afforded every opportunity to take up the vaccines as quickly as possible, and that has been the focus of our vaccination efforts to provide that access," she said.
"But we also need everyone to do the right thing … you cannot be complacent anywhere. And we do see the fact that people bring it back to different communities. And if people are not following the rules there, we can have additional bushfires.
"And at the moment, with our stretched system, we do not want to be fighting bushfires on multiple fronts. And that's why I'm so pleased as well that we have got the regional lockdown in place for two more weeks, so that we reduce that risk of any bushfires in the regions."
Dr Chant's "bushfires" analogy has also been used by La Trobe University Associate Professor and epidemiologist Hassan Vally, who in a piece for The Conversation on Friday wrote that "the number of fully vaccinated people isn't even close to the levels required to attenuate transmission".
"Right now, we still have a very infectious virus circulating in the mostly non-immune population. Metaphorically, we're in a tinder dry bush on a hot summer's day where one spark can lead to a raging bushfire," he warned.
"While this unstable dynamic exists, living with the virus isn't an option.
"The only option is to respond aggressively and eliminate the virus in order to enjoy some freedoms while we wait for the effect of vaccines to kick in. The alternative is to risk what we're seeing in NSW, which is incredibly concerning even with significant restrictions."
But asked today what gave her the "confidence" to approve rule changes for fully-vaccinated people, Dr Chant said "that one has to keep them in proportion".
"To be perfectly frank, these steps are baby steps, recognising the serious situation we are in, and I think it's important that we are allowing those interactions, that human interaction in an outdoor space, fully-vaccinated adults, outside those local government areas of concern," she said.
"We have to appreciate the genuine mental health impacts … Police have been consulted on this. If there is any issues of noncompliance or it is causing issues, of course, government has always changed its mind, but as the Premier has said repeatedly, we have to give the community the benefit of the doubt.
"The vast majority of people in the community do not want to see their loved ones subject to Covid-19 and are doing all they can."