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Greater social distancing could curb Covid-19 in 13 weeks

This article is sponsored by the University of Sydney. Authorised by Vice Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence. Enquiries: 9351 2000;

A University of Sydney data study from the Faculty of Engineering has revealed that social distancing must be adopted by at least 80 per cent of the Australian population to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

If social distancing measures were adopted by at least 80 per cent of the Australian population, we could expect to see the Covid-19 pandemic controlled in just over four months.

Led by Complex Systems academic and pandemic modelling expert, Professor Mikhail Prokopenko, the study also revealed that social distancing would be an unproductive measure if adopted by less than 70 per cent of the population.

“If we want to control the spread of Covid-19 – rather than letting the disease control us – at least 80 per cent of the Australian population must comply with strict social distancing measures for at least four months,” said Professor Mikhail Prokopenko.

“However, if 90 per cent of the population complies, then the duration could be as short as 13 to 14 weeks – meaning if we began tomorrow we could expect a control of Covid-19 by July,” he said.

“Conversely, if less than 70 per cent of the population is adopting social distancing measures, we cannot suppress the spread of the pandemic and any social distancing could be a fruitless effort,” he said.

“There is a clear trade off – stricter measures imposed earlier would reduce how long our lives are impacted by this disease. On the contrary, laxer protocols could mean a longer, more drawn out and ineffective struggle against Covid-19,” he said.

The research found that for every day the stricter social distancing measures are delayed, society would need to endure several more days under a longer suppression policy.

“There’s good reason for imposing tough measures early on. The longer we delay the peak, the more time our healthcare system has to prepare for it by accessing more resources such as ICU beds, ventilators, antivirals and trained health workers,” said Professor Prokopenko.

The researchers also found that while school closures had the potential to compensate for 10 per cent of a lack of social distancing compliance, they only delayed the peak of the pandemic by two weeks.

The AceMod simulator comprises over 24 million software agents, each with attributes of an anonymous individual, such as age, gender, occupation, susceptibility and immunity to diseases. Contact rates within different social contexts, such as households, household clusters, local neighbourhoods, schools, classrooms and workplaces are also built into the program.

The set of generated agents captures average characteristics of the real population and is calibrated to 2016 Australian Census data with respect to key demographic statistics.

The interactions result in transmission of the disease from infectious to susceptible individuals: given the contact and transmission rates, the simulation computes and updates agents’ states over time, starting from initial infections, seeded in international airports around Australia.

In this scenario, 80 per cent social distancing could either mean – any person in one household could go out once in five days, or, one member per family of five could go out daily, but the other four stay at home all the time.

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