In the NT, COVID-19 has spread fast since borders re-opened. We ask the experts how worried we should be

The Northern Territory reopened its borders less than three weeks ago, and since then COVID-19 case numbers and community transmission has surged.

Key points:

  • COVID-19 is spreading at such a rapid rate in the NT that every one person with COVID-19 is infecting 4.5 other people
  • Epidemiologists say that increase is similar to rates in other states and territories just after reopening
  • It's likely that rate will slow, then plateau in the next few weeks

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week, the Territory broke its daily record of new coronavirus cases, with numbers roughly doubling over each 24 hour period. 

As of Thursday, the COVID-19 effective reproduction number in the NT stood at 4.5.

According to health experts, this trend is not necessarily a cause for alarm, with similar patterns having been seen in other states and territories as they reopen. 

But what is an effective reproduction number?

And why are authorities urging people to remain calm amid the climbing case numbers?

LIVE UPDATES: Read our blog for the latest news on the COVID-19 pandemicRapid increase part of the 'epidemic curve'

The effective reproduction number of a disease is a way of measuring how infectious it is.

It refers to the number of people in a population who can be infected by one individual with that disease at any given time.

Chief Minister Michael Gunner said on Thursday that in the NT, that number was 4.5.

Most of the people who have been infected by the virus are in the Greater Darwin area and are between the ages of 20 and 40.

But health experts say while that number is high, it is not unexpected. 

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Catherine Bennett, chairwoman of epidemiology at Deakin University, said the NT's effective reproduction number was comparable with that of other states and territories that had reopened their borders, and where the Omicron variant was present. 

"If I look at the daily [reproduction] numbers, they went up to 4.2, back on the 17 December in Sydney, when their case numbers were really taking off. And Victoria, yesterday …  that was sitting around 3.2, and it was 3.5 earlier in the week," she said.

"So that 3.5, 4.5 [rate] is what you can expect to see in the early days."

She said the NT's young population and large number of communities were factors that meant COVID-19 could be spreading slightly more in the Territory than elsewhere. 

Read more about the spread of COVID-19:

Peter Collignon, a professor at the Australian National University's medical school, also said the rapid rise in COVID-19 case numbers reflected what had happened in other parts of Australia as well as overseas before they declined and then hit a plateau.

He predicted the same would happen in the NT within the next few weeks.

"It goes up and up, and then levels off and then comes down," he said.

"What's what they saw in South Africa, that's what they're seeing in [the UK].

"With every epidemic, you get an epidemic curve, which means it goes up steeply, might stay up for a while, then comes down again."

Wearing masks around other people are one of the best ways Territorians can protect themselves, according to the health experts. (ABC News: Che Chorley)Vaccination, masks the best protection

Dr Collignon said even if the high rate of COVID-19 spread in the NT was temporary, it was still worrying to see.

And he said it was an important reminder for people in the Territory to protect themselves as much as possible.

"I think we need to be concerned, and that means we need to take adequate precautions," he said.

"[People should] do what is practical to not get infected… because the advantage of you not getting infected is you're less likely to pass it on to others. So, there's both individual benefits and public benefits in trying to keep the numbers to lower levels than what there are now."

Dr Bennett said getting vaccinated, including with boosters, and mask-wearing were the best steps people could take to slow the spread of COVID.

"It it is important to remember, that every time you're out it's an opportunity to be exposed to the virus," she said. 

"If you have to wear masks indoors, even if you don't have to – if you're around other people, masks are a really good idea, they do help protect you from infection."

"[And] also, as people now are eligible for their boosters … that not only helps protect you, but that will also help bring this [reproduction] number back down slowly over the next few weeks."

Read more about the vaccine rollout:

Warning for NT health system

But John Boffa, the chief medical officer for public health at the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, said he was deeply concerned about the effective reproduction number in the Territory, which he believes is one of the highest in any jurisdiction since the pandemic began.

He wants to see more health measures in place to reduce the spread, including making masks mandatory for large outdoor gatherings and more government-run quarantine facilities for people who test positive.

"It's an extraordinarily high rate," he said.

"It's a rate of growth that we'd hope we'd never see, and it's a rate of growth that should have been partly preventable.

"We know we're living with COVID now, we know we're going to have cases. But we don't have to get this massive explosion of cases that we've seen now, and we do need to flatten the curve and slow it down."

He warned if cases continued to increase at their current rate, it would not be long before the NT health system buckled under the strain.

"Even if [the rate is] 3, 3.5, we know if it stays at that level, we've got an unsustainable situation, and our health system will not be able to cope," he said.

"The health system's under extreme strain already… [so] if this rate continues, we've got a major problem here.

"We've still got to slow things down, and at the moment they're speeding out of control."

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.WatchDuration: 2 minutes 37 seconds2m 37s What to do if you're unwell and suspect you have COVID but can't get a test.What you need to know about coronavirus:

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