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How Western Australia has managed to avoid large Covid-19 outbreaks

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As we've seen with tennis star Novak Djokovic being denied entry into Australia because he's unvaccinated, the country is taking COVID pretty seriously. That is especially true in Western Australia. The state is the last in Australia with a COVID-zero approach to the pandemic, which they've been largely successful in maintaining through vaccinations, border closings and strict rules on residents. This has enabled vaccinated Western Australians to enjoy a mostly normal lifestyle while the rest of the country is fighting large outbreaks.

To learn more about this, let's bring in Jacob Kagi. He's a reporter for The Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Good morning where you are, Jacob.

JACOB KAGI: Good morning. A pleasure to be with you.

CHANG: Pleasure to have you. So can you just explain for us in more detail how Western Australia has been able to keep cases really low for - what? - the majority of last year, right?

KAGI: Yeah. So really since going all the way back to April 2020, there have been very, very few cases here. There's been a small number of minor outbreaks. You're talking a few cases, a small handful of cases at a time which have all been quickly eliminated. So really nothing like almost the rest of the world.

The way that's been done is largely through border restrictions. So international travel has been almost entirely off-limits, and interstate travel - that's travel within Western Australia from other states - has also been very severely restricted. If any other state has COVID in its community, then Western Australia has stopped people from travelling in from those states. So by using border restrictions to stop people coming from places where there is COVID and then using restrictions internally, such as lockdown, stopping people moving, masks and so on anytime there is an outbreak to eliminate that outbreak, that's how WA has done it.

CHANG: And just to illustrate for us - I mean, looking to the rest of the country, how have the cases in Western Australia compared to eastern states during the course of this whole pandemic?

KAGI: Well, if you look at the moment, New South Wales, which is Australia's largest state by population, they're having about 35,000 cases a day at the moment. Western Australia has never had more than 50.

CHANG: Wow.

KAGI: Yesterday, we had one. And because of that, you know, we're having one or two cases a day at the moment. Because of that, everyone in Perth, the largest city, is currently wearing masks. There have been other restrictions as well. So you can see how different that approach is.

CHANG: Yeah. You mentioned Perth. I know that a few positive cases recently popped up there. What happens in Western Australia when cases do pop up?

KAGI: So as soon as there is really any spread of the virus in the community, restrictions are put in place. Like I said, right now we're all wearing masks any time we're in an indoor public space. We've had lockdowns, which really...

CHANG: Yeah.

KAGI: ...Stop people from moving about the community for any non-essential reason over as few as one case. So, you know, to - obviously to people in the U.S., where case number are so much higher, I'm not saying very, very different, but the approach here is that anytime there's an outbreak to do whatever is necessary...

CHANG: Yeah.

KAGI: ...To eliminate it.

CHANG: Well, let me ask you - I know the state plans on opening up its borders a little bit at a time in February when its population reaches about 90% vaccinated. Do you think people are ready for that in Western Australia?

KAGI: Look, it's going to be a huge adjustment. So on February 5, international travel and interstate travel, it all resumes for people who are fully vaccinated. So that means COVID is coming in. Now, the experience from other states is that when that happens, cases will come in very quickly. South Australia...

CHANG: Yeah.

KAGI: ...Our neighboring state...

CHANG: Sure.

KAGI: ...They went from zero cases to about 3,000 in the space of just a few weeks. So, you know, that gives some info for what lies ahead for Western Australia. West Australians...

CHANG: Yeah.

KAGI: ...Aren't used to that because...

CHANG: Right, right.

KAGI: ...Numbers have been so low. It'll be a...

CHANG: OK.

KAGI: ...Massive adjustment.

CHANG: That is Jacob Kagi, reporter for The Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Thank you very much.

KAGI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.