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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

Outbreak fuels shortage of disability carers

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Matt McCracken relies on experienced support workers just to get out of bed in the morning, but sourcing carers has become a dire problem for many people with disabilities as COVID-19 spreads through the community.

The 59-year-old tetraplegic, who requires a machine to help him breathe and has no use of his arms or legs after breaking his neck more than two decades ago, is left extremely vulnerable if his disability carer fails to arrive.

His wife Wendy, who is a nurse, has had to take time off work during the Omicron wave of COVID-19 to care for him after a support worker contracted COVID-19.

Omicron peak still to come

A shortage of disability carers and nursing home workers is already an issue, with the Omicron peak still to come.

Cases where asymptomatic disability support workers have gone to work in personal protective equipment (PPE) after testing positive to COVID-19 on a rapid antigen test (RAT) rather than leaving a client without care. Workforce shortages in the disability care sector are particularly acute in regional areas.

The McCrackens live at Morayfield, north of Brisbane. “We’re so under-supported with support workers,” Mr McCracken said.

“We have one of the largest geographics of people with disability in this local region in Queensland, but we don’t have the workers here to do it — COVID has made it even worse.

‘Left with very few other options’

Disability advocate Dr Dinesh Palipana said some people with disabilities were at risk of having to be cared for in over-stretched hospitals, even if they were not infected with the virus themselves, if too many of their carers caught COVID-19 and had to isolate.

“If a small care team is taken out of circulation, and they’re unable to access any other emergency care, they would be left with very few other options,” Dr Palipana said, Queensland’s first quadriplegic medical graduate.

“There’s a really diverse group of people within the community of people with disabilities that will face some really unique challenges and significant risk through this coming time.

“Worldwide, disasters and emergencies often disproportionately impact the disability community, and this pandemic is no exception.

“Gandhi said that the true measure of a society is seen by how it treats its most vulnerable and now is the time for us to demonstrate who we are as a nation.”

‘Time for action is now

Queenslanders with Disability Network chair Des Ryan, who is based in Rockhampton in central Queensland, said challenges such as accessing COVID-19 testing, booster vaccines and support workers had become a chorus across the sector.

He called on the federal government to prioritise rapid antigen tests for people with disabilities and their support workers.

More RATs for disability sector needed

Queensland Disability Services Minister Craig Crawford has written to his federal counterpart Linda Reynolds with concerns about the shortage of RATs in the sector.

“I have heard from many Queenslanders with disability who have health conditions which make them much more vulnerable to serious illness or death if they have COVID-19,” Mr Crawford said.

He said some National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants had cancelled essential support services due to worries about contracting the virus from carers. Mr Crawford said guaranteeing a supply of RATs to the disability care sector would help protect Queenslanders with disabilities.

‘I had to be alone overnight’

Karin Swift, who has cerebral palsy, lives alone at Eight Mile Plains, an outer southern suburb of Brisbane, with help from a support team funded by the NDIS.

The 49-year-old has had four of her workers test positive to COVID-19 during the pandemic.

“I had a bit of a time of it when COVID started getting out of control here in Queensland,” Ms Swift said. “Last week, I had to actually miss a support worker shift. My team did the very best they could do, but unfortunately it meant I had to be alone overnight — it’s not the ideal scenario.

“It’s important the federal government has a strategy for people with disabilities. “If there is a strategy, people with disabilities don’t know what it is and feel like no-one is really looking out for them.”

Ms Swift said sourcing RATs was vital to keeping those with disabilities — and their workers — protected. “I can’t run the risk of a person coming into my environment with COVID-19,” she said.

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COVID-19 in Australia

Twice a week RATs planned for students

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The Victorian government is committing to having all of its schools return to face-to-face learning for the first day of term one. With fears the Omicron variant will seriously impact staffing levels and student health early in the school term, the Andrews government has unveiled a four-week approach to managing COVID.

The plan is near-identical to the one being introduced in New South Wales, with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews working closely with NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet on the new COVID settings. Here’s how school will look for Victorian students and staff this term.

Students and staff to use self-testing surveillance regime

The government has secured 14 million rapid tests to be delivered to schools and early childhood centres in the coming weeks. More than 6.6 million tests will be delivered in the first week of school, with delivery trucks rolling out from Sunday morning.

The RATs will form the backbone of a self-testing regime designed to stop widespread outbreaks at schools. Primary and secondary students and staff will be recommended to test themselves twice weekly, while students and staff at specialist schools will be recommended to test five times a week.

The testing will be voluntary, with the responsibility of reporting results to the Department of Health and to schools falling on parents and guardians. Schools will distribute RATs to parents and families, with the first deliveries being made today.

Amid continued RAT shortages, the government made assurances that it had all the rapid antigen tests needed to deliver on its back-to-school plan. Supply numbers will be reviewed by the government at the end of the four-week plan.

 

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COVID-19 in Australia

Shortages plague concessional RAT rollout

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More than 6 million Australians will have access to free rapid antigen tests from today, but pharmacists fear widespread supply shortages mean they will struggle to meet the demand.

Earlier this month, and under sustained demands to make rapid antigen tests (RATs) free for all Australians, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced concession card holders would be able to pick up tests from their local pharmacies.

Pensioners, veterans and low-income earners are among those allowed up to 10 free tests in a three-month period, with a maximum of five tests in a month.

Demand for COVID-19 testing surged over summer and the shift by state and territory governments to allow the use of rapid tests put incredible pressure on already limited supplies.

The situation is yet to improve, with RAT stocks selling out almost as soon as fresh deliveries arrive. Pharmacists have warned supply shortages will impact the rollout of the federal government’s COVID-19 rapid antigen test concession scheme.

The government has again defended their rollout of the concessional scheme, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg saying every country is suffering from supply chain issues with regards to the tests.

RAT rollout to schools

The nation’s two largest states laid out plans for the upcoming first week of school with rapid antigen tests playing a major role in their similar schemes.

As part of NSW’s long-awaited back-to-school plan, teachers and pupils will get two rapid antigen tests per week when they return to classrooms. The scheme will run for four weeks, covering the states 3,000 primary and secondary schools. Early education and childcare centres will also be included.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced a similar strategy, saying 6.6 million RATs will be delivered to schools and early childhood centres across the state before primary and secondary students resume classes on 31 January. In all, 14 million RAT kits will be distributed during the state’s surveillance testing regime, which will be reviewed after four weeks.

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