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COVID-19 in Australia

NSW vs VIC: over 90% 1st dose, what’s next?

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All back as restrictions ease in Victoria

Victorians are enjoying eased restrictions, which the Premier describes as “a return to normal”. From Friday, double-vaccinated Victorians have almost no remaining public health restrictions to navigate. The number of patrons at cafes and restaurants no longer has to be restricted, pubs and clubs are open, and home visitors are uncapped.

Major sporting and cultural events such as the Boxing Day Test and the Australian Open will not face attendance or density caps, and vaccinated shoppers can freely hunt for Christmas gifts.

But unvaccinated people will not be allowed into non-essential retail, won’t be able to visit hairdressers and real estate inspections, or take part in community sport. Anyone who hasn’t had two jabs of a vaccine faces 14 days isolation as a close contact of a COVID-19 case, compared with seven days for the fully vaccinated. A tiny proportion of Australians have medical exemptions from vaccination, because of the risk of allergic reactions and other side effects.

 

NSW could roll back more restrictions this week

Masks, QR codes and close contact rules could be among the coronavirus measures rolled back early in NSW.

Premier Dominic Perrottet on Sunday flagged he was considering more changes, including the requirements for close contacts of Covid-19 cases. Currently, vaccinated close contacts must self-isolate for seven days, while unvaccinated close contacts must isolate for 14 days.

That came after Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello last week said mandatory check-ins would be wound back for low-risk venues if cases keep falling. Masks are currently mandatory in all indoor settings except offices. The rules are slated to remain in place until December 15, when restrictions for unvaccinated residents will ease.

Saturday Victorian protest

Over the weekend, tens of thousands of people gathered in Melbourne to protest vaccine mandates and the Victorian government’s proposed pandemic bill.

The Victorian government’s pandemic bill was designed to replace State of Emergency laws which were used to bring restrictions in during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill has been the subject of intense debate and has attracted protests outside the Victorian parliament.

As in previous weeks, Saturday’s large crowd in Melbourne is a mix of young, old and families from different backgrounds. Common chants are “Sack Dan Andrews”, “Jail Dan Andrews”, “Free Victoria” and “Save Our Children” (the latter referring to the crowd’s opposition to the vaccination of children).

 

How many people at these protests would still go if they knew who they were marching alongside?

The protests should have a sobering effect on leaders of good sense who care about democracy. As we head into a federal election year in 2022, we are seeing the pre-conditions for fringe politicians with extremist views to be elected and hold the balance of power in parliament, by doing or saying whatever it takes to hold that power.

The protests should have a sobering effect on leaders of good sense who care about democracy. As we head into a federal election year in 2022, we are seeing the pre-conditions for fringe politicians with extremist views to be elected and hold the balance of power in parliament, by doing or saying whatever it takes to hold that power.

 

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COVID-19 Around the World

Weekly COVID news at a glance

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(AUS) Regional community centre has vaccine success

A community centre in Wodonga on the New South Wales-Victoria border is being acknowledged as having run a successful regional COVID vaccination program, especially with its multicultural residents. The Albury-Wodonga region currently has a vaccination rate among the highest in the country, with the community centre partnership key in achieving this. 

The initiative is a partnership between the Albury-Wodonga Ethnic Communities Council and Albury-Wodonga Health, funded by the Victorian government. Community leaders are able to speak in many languages other than English, including Swahili, Nepali, Hindi, French and dialects of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Multicultural residents of the area and participants of the program say they have found it important to have questions answered and misinformation dispelled in their native languages, overall making vaccination more accessible.

 

(AUS) Review vaccine booster time

Health Minister Greg Hunt has asked the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation to review health advice on vaccine boosters as uncertainty grows over Omicron, a new variant of COVID-19.

To be eligible for a COVID-19 booster shot, you must be aged 18 and over and have had a second dose of a COVID-19 at least six months ago. The Australian government will seek advice about whether the six-month timeframe for a booster shot should be shortened.

The UK has already brought forward the eligibility for booster shots to five months after the second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in an effort to speed up the program.

 

(AUS) Funding for vulnerable vaccine groups

The Victorian Government has announced new funding to help vulnerable Victorians get vaccinated. Eligible community organisations and neighbourhood houses can apply for up to 20,000-dollars to make it easier for people to get vaccinated and to reduce COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. 

The funding will help address any practical efforts such as assisting vaccination appointment booking or arranging childcare for parents during appointments.

The program will assist Victorians from vulnerable groups, such as people living with disability, seniors, multicultural communities, social housing residents and those affected by domestic violence. Funding is also available for organisations and programs to increase vaccination rates by addressing vaccine misinformation. 

Minister for Multicultural Affairs Ros Spence announced the two and a half million-dollar package on Monday. For more information, visit the Victorian government website and search for the local community access grants program.

 

(Worldwide) Israel seals borders

Israel is barring entry to all foreign nationals, in one the most drastic of travel restrictions imposed by countries around the world in an attempt to slow the spread of the new Omicron variant of coronavirus.

Israel’s coronavirus cabinet has authorised a series of measures including banning entry by foreigners, red-listing travel to 50 African countries, and making quarantine mandatory for all Israelis arriving from abroad. The entry ban came into effect at midnight local time (10pm GMT) on Sunday.

 

(Worldwide) US could face ‘fifth wave’

Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, said on Sunday the US has “the potential to go into a fifth wave” of coronavirus infections amid rising cases and stagnating vaccination rates. He also warned that the newly discovered Omicron variant shows signs of heightened transmissibility.

On Sunday evening, shortly after the first Omicron cases in North America were confirmed in Canada, the White House said Biden met Fauci and other advisers on returning to Washington from holiday in Nantucket.

Fauci, a statement said, “informed the president that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid”.

 

(Worldwide) Calls for lifting of Omicron travel bans

South Africa’s president has condemned travel bans enacted against his country and its neighbours over the new coronavirus variant Omicron.

Cyril Ramaphosa said he was “deeply disappointed” by the action, which he described as unjustified, and called for the bans to be urgently lifted. The UK, EU and US are among those who have imposed travel bans.

Omicron has been classed as a “variant of concern”. Early evidence suggests it has a higher re-infection risk. The heavily mutated variant was detected in South Africa earlier this month and then reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) last Wednesday.

The variant is responsible for most of the infections found in South Africa’s most populated province, Gauteng, over the last two weeks, and is now present in all other provinces in the country.

 

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COVID-19 in Australia

Why is Omicron so different?

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The federal government on Saturday announced that non-Australian citizens who had been in nine countries in southern Africa where Omicron had been detected were barred from entering Australia. Two COVID-positive travellers from southern Africa who arrived in New South Wales on Saturday have tested positive for the variant.

 

All parties’ response to Omicron

Scott Morrison described the emergence of the coronavirus variant as “concerning” but said Australia had dealt with other strains of the virus before. Mr Morrison also noted Australia was not in the same position that it was at the beginning of the pandemic. Currently, 86.7 per cent of the population aged 16 and over is fully vaccinated. 

PM Scott Morrison

Victorian health authorities are asking for people to remain calm as they wait for more information on the emerging Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus.

The variant has not been detected in the state, and the state’s chief health officer Brett Sutton says that high levels of vaccination mean Victoria will not be regressing to measures taken at the start of the pandemic. 

Professor Sutton

Professor Sutton also noted that precautionary measures will be important to allow authorities to gauge the health response required by the new variant, with very little information known on it so far. Victorians eligible for their booster shot have also been urged to book their appointments, to provide additional protection against the virus.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said he would not speculate on whether Australia was likely to have to close its international border again, but authorities were working on a “risk-balanced” approach. 

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said there has been no signs Omicron is a more dangerous disease in terms of impact of hospitalisation, serious illness or loss of life.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt

According to experts, current vaccines may well prove to be extremely effective against the variant and should still offer protection against serious infection and death.

The UN health agency said it could take several weeks to complete studies of the variant to see if there are any changes in transmissibility, tests and treatments.

The UN health agency

 

 

Current knowledge about Omicron 

Transmissibility: It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta.

Severity of disease: It is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta. 

Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron.  

There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants.  Initial reported infections were among university students—younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease—but understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks. 

Effectiveness of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection: Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron (ie, people who have previously had COVID-19 could become reinfected more easily with Omicron), as compared to other variants of concern, but information is limited.

Effectiveness of vaccines: WHO is working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines. Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.   

Effectiveness of current tests: The widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron, as we have seen with other variants as well. Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests.  

Effectiveness of current treatments: Corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers will still be effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19. Other treatments will be assessed to see if they are still as effective given the changes to parts of the virus in the Omicron variant.  

 

Reinstatement of border closures gets support of epidemiologists

Nancy Baxter, head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, said shutting the borders to certain countries was a “tough” measure but the right move, given what we know so far about Omicron.

Nancy Baxter, head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health

Scientists around the world are working to discover if it is more infectious than other strains of COVID, and whether it is more resistant to vaccines. Authorities will need to keep an eye on other countries where Omicron may already have spread, Professor Baxter added.

 

 

Omicron highlights low vaccination rates in southern Africa

Experts say the emergence of Omicron underlines the need to boost vaccine rates in poor countries — particularly in Africa.

Vinod Balasubramaniam

“A more effective way to prevent the variant’s spread would be to increase vaccination rates in southern African countries as opposed to locking them out from the rest of the world,” said Vinod Balasubramaniam, an infectious diseases expert at Monash University Malaysia.

“Every time the virus reproduces inside someone there’s a chance of it mutating and a new variant emerging,” Dr Balasubramaniam said. “It’s a random process, a bit like rolling dice. The more you roll, the greater the chance of new variants appearing.

 

“The main way to stop variants is equal global vaccination. The emergence of Omicron reminds us of how important that goal remains.”

 

 

Vaccine “inequity” and hesitancy

While it’s not clear whether Omicron originated in South Africa or was brought into the country from elsewhere, some scientists say the virus is more likely to mutate in places where vaccination is low and transmission is high. 

Only 24 per cent of South Africa’s population is fully vaccinated. Vaccine hesitancy combined with lack of access were behind the lower vaccination rates.

The World Health Organisation has criticised wealthy nations for the “self defeating” and “immoral” practice of hoarding Covid-19 vaccines and failing to deliver on promises to share doses with the developing world.

According to the WHO, only 7.5 per cent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, compared with 63.9 per cent of people in high-income countries.

The WHO had set a target for all countries to vaccinate 10 per cent of their populations by the end of September, but 56 countries were unable to meet this target, most of them in Africa.

The WHO says the only way to achieve these targets is for the countries and companies that control vaccine supply to put contracts for the multilateral COVAX initiative and the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust. Australia has pledged to donate 60 million vaccine doses, making it among the most generous countries per capita.

But the government has largely ignored the COVAX initiative in favour of bilateral agreements with countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in what critics describe as “vaccine diplomacy”, influenced more by geopolitical motivations.

Jeremy Farrar, director of UK health charity the Wellcome Trust, said new variants were “a reminder if we needed it that the pandemic is far from over, inequity is what will extend the pandemic”.

 

 

Mask wearing, social distancing encouraged

Despite high rates of vaccination in Australia, experts are warning against complacency.

“There has been discussion about scaling back contact tracing — that is not a good idea,” Professor Martiniuk said. “We should continue with QR code check-in, masking, especially while we try to understand Omicron, because it may already be here in Australia.”

The WHO said it would take “a few weeks” to understand the full impact of Omicron.

In the meantime, measures that have been used throughout the pandemic to stop the spread of the virus needed to be maintained, Professor Baxter said.

“Masks work on all forms of COVID. Social distancing works on all forms of COVID. Better ventilation works on all forms of COVID.

“New variants are one of the reasons why we need to think about more than just vaccines,” she said. “We need to think about vaccines, plus the other things that we can do to reduce transmission.”

 

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COVID-19 in Australia

Still in low vaccination rates

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Public health experts are warning that poorer suburbs, as well as Aboriginal and multicultural communities, have been left unprepared for the opening of state borders and inevitable COVID-19 outbreaks.

With interstate travel resuming to South Australia, Tasmania and Queensland within days or weeks, many people in disadvantaged areas remain unprotected.

“The gap is actually widening between local government areas where they have a higher rate [of vaccinations] and [those with] lower rates,” said John Glover, the head of the Public Health Information Development Unit at Torrens University.

“Vaccination is taking off in some areas and not in others.

“The difference across the cities is quite stark, and the difference between the city and the regional area in … Queensland, South Australia and Western Australia is quite stark.”

Rates for young Indigenous people also remain low, as do some suburbs with high numbers of migrants.

Community leaders say language barriers, higher rates of insecure and shift work, and social media misinformation are the main reasons that vaccination rates are low.

“Those barriers, those issues [are] really affecting the communities,” Afghan community leader Hussain Rezaiat said.

‘Not as egalitarian as we think’

Professor Duckett said the pandemic had highlighted the seriousness of the problem of social and economic inequality in Australia.

“We pride ourselves in Australia of being an egalitarian society but what COVID revealed was that we’re not as egalitarian as we think,” he said. “Vaccination rates were lower amongst lower-income people, people with lower education, First Nations Australians.

That is especially important as Australia rolls out booster shots for the next phase of the pandemic.

“Because society has been affected unevenly, our response to rebuilding has to be uneven. We have to give more resources to those areas [that] were most affected and most disadvantaged.”

That means that, with the virus waning, vaccination was still only part of the battle.

 

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