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Dan O’Brien has been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 battle since last year, but on Monday stepped away from his behind-the-scenes role and stepped up as Victoria’s acting Chief Health Officer.

Associate Professor O’Brien has been Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer responsible for outbreaks and contact tracing, and was pivotal in helping contain the Port Melbourne and Sandringham coronavirus clusters.

Acting Chief Health Officer Dan O’Brien fronted his first press conference on Monday. Credit:Eddie Jim

He will be Victoria’s acting Chief Health Officer for six days while Professor Brett Sutton takes two weeks off.

Professor Allen Cheng, who has in the past filled in for Professor Sutton, left the role last week and returned to Alfred Health in a full-time capacity as the director of infection prevention and healthcare epidemiology.

Professor O’Brien, who fronted his first press conference on Monday, has been one of the state’s deputy chief health officers since January after joining from Barwon Health where he was the deputy director of infectious diseases.

“I’m proud to support the work of our public health teams in any capacity, whether that’s as acting Chief Health Officer, leading Victoria’s contact tracing teams or working in our Local Public Health Units which are such a vital part of our community-based response to coronavirus,” he said.

Since January he has been responsible for contact tracing in Victoria, a system that became overwhelmed last year during the state’s deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, people who had tested positive to coronavirus reported waiting more than a week to be interviewed.

Contact tracing underwent a major overhaul by the end of the year and during the latest outbreak Victorian officials have said they were able to begin tracking the contacts of a confirmed case even before they had finished interviewing that case.

Professor O’Brien was 28 when he volunteered on the battlefields of Bosnia with Médecins Sans Frontières and then later in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chechnya.

He told the Geelong Advertiser last year his experience as a volunteer aid worker was helpful in preparing for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton is on leave for two weeks. Credit:Joe Armao

“When we were really in the rush-rush-rush mode [in March and April], and all saying COVID-19 was about to hit here, and increasing our cap­acity and planning for the worst, it wasn’t that dissimilar to being in a war zone or a crisis,” he said.

“It’s the same pressure, high-stakes mentality. When there are mass casualties, you’ve got to pick and choose who you think are the most likely to survive and put your efforts in there.

“You can’t do everything, and you can’t save everyone. And if you look at the COVID situation around the world, that’s exactly what they’ve had to do — use their scarce resources where they’re likely to be most effective.”

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