THE sharp drop in cold and flu cases through lockdown has experts asking if masks and social distancing are the way of the future.
Warrnambool has seen a staggering 91 per cent drop in recorded influenza cases in 2020 compared to last year.
There were 370 cases in 2019, and just 32 in 2020.
South West Healthcare alone saw a 77 per cent drop in recorded influenza cases in its emergency departments and wards, with just 24 cases compared to 107 in 2019.
There was a 55 per cent drop in confirmed viral respiratory cases, from 215 cases to 95 the same time this year.
Data from Roy Morgan shows a similar trend nationally, showing fewer Australians experienced health conditions such as ear, nose and throat infections, allergies, colds and flu.
The largest decline from a year ago was for ear, nose and throat conditions experienced by 44.9 per cent of Australians in the last year, down a large 14.4 per cent on a year ago.
The second largest decline has been for allergies, colds and flu conditions reported by 62.8 per cent of Australians, down 9.8 per cent on a year ago.
SWH infection prevention coordinator Jen Lukeis says this result may be for several reasons.
"From the outset, the Department of Health and Human Service's 2020 COVID campaign included educating communities on concepts of physical distancing, hand hygiene and 'stay at home unless it's essential to go out' messaging which has definitely been responsible for dramatically reducing the opportunity for respiratory viruses to spread during 2020," she said.
"The community has also supported the government's rigorous home isolation campaign, for when a person has had symptoms of COVID.
"The addition of face masks at the height of our usual flu season will have also had an effect on this large decrease.
"The combination of these basic infection prevention principles as well as the rigorous influenza campaign has shown an overall reduction in presentations of patients with both confirmed influenza and other respiratory viruses."
Tim Baker, Director of Deakin's Centre for Rural Emergency Medicine and an emergency physician at the Warrnambool Base Hospital, said hospital attendances were also down for the same period.
"All attendances at the Warrnambool Base Hospital were down and it appears respiratory illness is much less," Dr Baker said.
"We saw a huge decrease in patients during the lockdown, and now the patient numbers have gone back up again.
"The emergency department is busier than it's ever been and the COVID precautions we are now having to take make everything slower and are adding a lot of extra time.
"But from a general review the number of presentations have gone down, especially respiratory presentations."
Dr Baker said those outcomes are highly likely due to social distancing and mask wearing - practices that may remain part of the community every winter flu season going forward.
"I think while a vaccine will be able to treat COVID, social distancing measures and hand hygiene can prevent just about any infection, they're worth putting into your day," he said.
"I wonder if this generation that's been through this pandemic will continue to do some measures to prevent disease spread.
"Certainly there's been changes in hospitals in the way rooms are separated, the way the airflow works and the procedures people use to stop infection spread. Things that have been talked about as important 20 years ago have all happened this year; things that were assumed too difficult have happened very quickly this year.
I imagine the way the new Warrnambool Base Hospital will be built will be different after the pandemic than how it would have been built before the pandemic.Tim Baker, Deakin Centre for Rural Medicine Director
"I think infection control will take a far higher precedence and that's a good thing.
"I think while everyone is tired from this pandemic people are desperately trying to write down all the things they've learnt to make sure hospitals are better set up for infections in the future."
Dr Baker said telehealth will likely be the lasting effect of the pandemic on rural health care.
"Telemedicine for people to not have to go to Melbourne to see a specialist was often thought of as too hard, yet when COVID hit in a matter of months it became easy and standard.
"I have no doubt the pandemic will change how hospitals are built and run and how the health systems outside hospitals will run.
"There will still be problems as not everyone in the south-west has good connectivity and appropriate equipment, but it will save having to drive three or four hours to sit in a waiting room for an hour to be seen for 10 minutes, then have to drive home again."
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