Dugald Saunders has become a familiar face to many over the last few months as the Dubbo MP fronts the cameras every day at noon for a press conference where he delivers COVID updates for around the Western NSW Local Health District (WNSWLHD).
These updates have been an essential source of information for some as numbers continue to rise and fall amid the Delta outbreak. Speaking with the Mudgee Guardian, Dugald talked vaccination numbers, the 14-day goal for every LGA and what it's like preparing for a new press conference every day.
He began by saying the feeling among the region's residents is a lot more positive than it was at the beginning of the most recent outbreak.
"I think, in general, people are feeling a lot better about things now than what they were a month ago. A month ago we had our first cases pop up, and then it went from zero to 100 very quickly. It just felt like it was it was really escalating extremely quickly and at a really dangerous trajectory," he said.
"So all of that was understandably concerning for people. The vaccination rate has gone through the roof... so I think people have really taken on board the fact that if you get vaccinated you do have less chance of passing on or catching the virus."
At the time of writing, NSW has seen roughly 53 per cent of people above 16 years fully vaccinated which puts the state on a steady trajectory towards a significant easing of restrictions.
However, many have questioned the rollout and availability of the vaccine and the fact it was not as readily available earlier.
The reality is, vaccinations have been available for a long, long time.Member for Dubbo, Dugald Saunders
"The reality is, vaccinations have been available for a long, long time," Mr Saunders said.
"I know people that have been double vaccinated since June. So what happened is that, as we typically do, as first of all Australians, and particularly regionally based Australians, we wait till the last minute and that's certainly what we saw here.
"They will just have thought 'well, it's not really affecting me yet so we'll just see what happens.' And I think that is the truth.
"People didn't think it would end up being a massive problem for them. They didn't think it would impact their lives and then suddenly, with cases, and I think it started probably when Sydney locked down, people started thinking; 'okay, maybe I need to think about it now.' And then certainly, since our cases, everyone has scrambled, and that's great.
"The problem is though, when that happens, you've got this massive pipeline of people wanting something and a much smaller pipeline of availability, because up until that point, there's been no demand. So you suddenly have demand completely outweighing supply whereas the three, four, five, six months it had been completely the other way around."
When Dubbo started recording its first cases in August, Mr Saunders remembers fronting up to the first press conference with the expectation that this would be the first of a number over the next few days.
"I said to Scott (McLachlan) 'we'll probably just do this for a few days and see what happens and hopefully, you know it'll start coming down again soon'. Well, here we are now, tomorrow (September 21) it will be six weeks straight that we've been doing it, and I didn't think it would be that long. In some ways I certainly hoped it wouldn't be that long, he said."
The major milestone really is that 70 per cent double vaccination rate.
It has previously been stated a Local Government Area (LGA) that has had 14 days without any cases can likely come out of lockdown, and as the region persists in its second month of stay-at-home orders, residents in the Mudgee region have become used to the frustration of a single case popping up every week or so.
But does a single case 'reset the clock'?
Mr Saunders explained it's more complex than that and a single case doesn't necessarily mean easing restrictions are further away.
"The major milestone really is that 70 per cent double vaccination rate. There will be LGAs that can possibly look at coming in and out of stay-at-home orders sooner than that. That's the question, we're looking at mid October 18.
"It might be slightly ahead of the 18th of October, we've really been going particularly well as a state on vaccinations.
"But let's say it's the 18th, I think that is the major milestone.
"If I can use Warrumbungle Shire last week, for example, [they] had a case that popped up after they'd been released from stay-at-home orders but that case was deemed to be really no risk at all to the community. So they were left alone.
...If we know there's no risk, then absolutely, that area can be looked at. Otherwise, it really is from that 14 day of infection.
"The factor that is of concern is the possibility of being infectious in the community. So we know the [aged care] case at Mudgee currently, there is concern. We know the case of Cowra there is a concern. Anywhere where there really is a concern, and it isn't necessarily known where the person's been or where the infection may have spread to, then that will be really hard to say, 'well, there's no risk' because they clearly could be.
"So if we know there's no risk, then absolutely, that area can be looked at. Otherwise, it really is from that 14 day of infection. Because that's how long we know somebody can pass that infection on from or be infectious for. That may not know it."
Mr Saunders encouraged everyone to support their local businesses that have been able to remain open and hopes that once things start opening back up around the state and region that people are there to support those that have done it tough.
"Some businesses have been through the absolute wringer and particularly for a place like Mudgee and Gulgong that would rely on school holidays and long weekends to generate vast amounts of their income for that year have missed out again," he said.
"I think us encouraging them [tourists] with the fact that we are a safe, family-friendly, beautiful fresh air destination that we want you to be back at and we're welcoming and we've done the right thing and we're healthy, we're looking after you. Come visit and enjoy what we've got.
"I think that's on all of us to keep talking to friends and family about the opportunities to come and see regional areas like Mudgee and hopefully that will help our businesses bounce back in a really great way leading up to Christmas."
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