BREAKDOWN: How coronavirus impacted Toowoomba community

JUST over four months ago, COVID-19 arrived in the Darling Downs.

A sign pinned at the Kingaroy Woolworths on March 13 confirmed the town was the location of the health region's first coronavirus case.

The 53-year-old store employee tested positive to the virus, and while the risk to employees and customers was considered low, it sparked a quick closure of the store for cleaning.

At the time, only 35 cases had been reported in Queensland.

That number would eventually balloon to more than 1000, but has plateaued in recent weeks.

The Darling Downs thankfully followed the same trajectory and has gone more than 100 days without a fresh case.

Following that first case, it took just six days for the first positive test in Toowoomba - the largest regional centre in the health district.

Three days prior to that case, the city's Baillie Henderson Hospital became one of the pilot sites for drive-through fever testing.

Toowoomba's first case was similar to a majority of cases in the Darling Downs health unit - overseas acquisition.

Of the 37 cases that would be eventually identified in the Toowoomba Regional Council area, only six of those were locally acquired.

COVID-19 coronavirus drive-through testing at Baillie Henderson Hospital. Picture: Kevin Farmer
COVID-19 coronavirus drive-through testing at Baillie Henderson Hospital. Picture: Kevin Farmer

The remaining cases were returning travellers ordered into isolation upon their return to the region.

While the Darling Downs made up a relatively small portion of confirmed cases, tragically it was also the location of two of Queensland's six deaths from the virus.

On March 25, the first person in the region lost their life to COVID-19 - 68-year-old Garry Kirstenfeldt.

Garry was a returning traveller, who contracted the virus on the Voyager of the Seas cruise ship.

At this point, 16 cases of coronavirus were confirmed in the Darling Downs, confined to single cases in Kingaroy and Warwick and 14 in Toowoomba.

On March 29, the first sign of the virus was detected in the Western Downs in Miles.

In the following days, additional cases were reported in Chinchilla, Kingaroy, Oakey and Toowoomba.

During this time, the virus also claimed the life of another Darling Downs man.

Des Williams, an 85-year-old, died in Toowoomba Hospital after contracting COVID-19 on the Ruby Princess cruise ship.

The last new case confirmed in the Darling Downs health unit was on April 11.

At this time 43 cases had been confirmed in the region, but this has since been revised down to 42.

Despite it being just over 100 days since the last positive test, there are still more than 50 people currently under self-quarantine in the Darling Downs.

Nearly 2000 notices have been issued to Darling Downs residents since self-quarantine directions were enacted.

Data released yesterday also revealed more than 7000 tests were conducted in the region up to June 1.

In Queensland, 1073 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed.

Three of those are active cases.

Social and economic impacts

MUCH like all of Australia, the impacts of coronavirus have been felt both socially and economically across Toowoomba and the Darling Downs.

As restrictions on gatherings stated to come into play in March, businesses like pubs and restaurants started to take a hit.

Some businesses pushed on and offered additional takeaway options to combat the loss of trade, while some went into hibernation for months.

Many have re-emerged since restrictions were eased again, but the doors on some remain closed.

And it wasn't just the hospitality industry that started to feel the pinch.

The retail sector slowed.

Boarders disappeared from schools and learning went online.

Churches also embraced digital services.

Councils started to close their major community facilities.

Airlines cut the number of flights to and from Wellcamp Airport.

Big events like the Hampton Food Festival announced their 2020 iterations would not go ahead.

During the restrictions, residents started reaching out for help.

Lifeline Darling Downs CEO Derek Tuffield said the organisation was "swamped" with requests in March.

Lifeline Darling Downs CEO Derek Tuffield addresses the media to give a COVID-19 coronavirus Toowoomba response update, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Picture: Kevin Farmer
Lifeline Darling Downs CEO Derek Tuffield addresses the media to give a COVID-19 coronavirus Toowoomba response update, Wednesday, April 1, 2020. Picture: Kevin Farmer

But signs of positivity began to emerge.

The "care army" mobilised to help Toowoomba's most vulnerable, originally conceived as a way to help Meals on Wheels.

The University of Southern Queensland announced a $5.2 million package to help people with rent and technology purchases.

Toowoomba Regional Council adopted a $10.5 million COVID-19 relief package, including a raft of measures like a $125 credit applied to rates bills and postponing the sale of land.

Some normalcy has also been reinstated.

Patrons and shoppers are back supporting local businesses, events have made a comeback and residents are using council-owned facilities again.

The Met owners Jasmine and Kosta Theodosis. Picture: Kevin Farmer
The Met owners Jasmine and Kosta Theodosis. Picture: Kevin Farmer

But some businesses are still hurting and charity organisations across Toowoomba are bracing for a surge in poverty.

This week the Toowoomba Chamber of Commerce welcomed the extension of the Federal Government's JobKeeper program, which will continue supporting businesses and employees until March.

Threat remains

ALTHOUGH it's more than 100 days since a case in the Darling Downs, it's clear Queensland and Australia are far from out of the woods.

Cases continue to surge in Victoria and are steadily increasing in New South Wales.

Thankfully, another hotspot has not been identified in Queensland.

And as people continue to cross the border since it reopened, an alarming number are lying to authorities about whether they have been in interstate COVID-19 hot spots.

Some are even hiding in boots to cross the border.

For now, the advice in Queensland remains the same - wash your hands, maintain social distancing and if you have any symptoms, get yourself tested.



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