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COVID-19 in Australia

Omicron waves peak in Australia Live with it or Kill it?

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Australia may have reached its Omicron peak with the burden on the health system lower than earlier projections. Hospitalisation admissions have started dropping in Victoria and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton says Victoria is close to a peak, fell to 998, down from 1,002 patients on Sunday. There are fewer COVID-19 hospitalisations in New South Wales, and its peak is far lower than earlier projections for hospital demand.

Fewer healthcare workers are also currently in isolation, partly due to changed protocols. Hospitalisation is steadily rising in Queensland at 863 but a slowing of admissions is expected to occur soon. Most states are confident that they are nearing a peak in this Omicron wave.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has declared the Omicron variant is nearing its peak across several infection hotspots as states continue to grapple with rising case numbers. Mr Hunt said hospitalisation numbers were showing promising signs of stabilising after COVID-19 infections had soared during the Omicron wave.

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UK became an early lead for “live with virus”

Throughout the pandemic, the United Kingdom has, at times, been an early indicator to other countries of the dangers posed by new variants. Now Omicron is swiftly moving through Britain, with cases already surpassing the UK’s peak pandemic levels and setting new records.

England – and the rest of the UK, for that matter – is one of best protected nations when you combine the immunity built up by vaccination and previous infection. More than 97% of the population has antibodies, the latest Office for National Statistics data suggests. When the pandemic began, that was, of course, 0%.

This does not necessarily mean people are immune to infection, but our bodies have become better at fighting the virus. The result is Omicron is now causing milder illness and the proportion of infected people dying has dropped markedly.

More than 15,000 people in England are in hospital with Covid, although this is not entirely what it seems as close to half of them have been admitted for something else rather than being seriously ill with the virus.

More freedom to “live with it”

Meanwhile, the rise of Omicron meant the effectiveness of two vaccine doses in preventing infection has been significantly reduced, weakening the argument for Covid passes to access events. Instead, what many experts believe will be crucial now is the behaviour of the public.

Just because the government is giving people more freedom, it does not mean there will be a headlong rush back to normal.

This has been seen throughout the pandemic. Even after England’s 19 July “Freedom Day”, mixing patterns did not rebound back to pre-pandemic levels, when people would average 10 contacts a day, helping keep the virus largely in check until the arrival of Omicron.

Now the public is again being asked to manage the risks, and that behaviour will determine the course of the pandemic over the coming weeks.

HK’s “zero covid policy”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Saturday that Hong Kong is sticking with its zero-infections policy of suppressing outbreaks, saying the city wasn’t ready to live with the virus and its vaccination rate is too low.

Hong Kong has struggled to get its most vulnerable vaccinated despite wide vaccine availability. Overall, 71% of Hong Kong residents have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccine. But less than half of people in their 70s have received two shots, while the rate is under a fifth for people in their 80s.

While much of the world was hit repeatedly by mass Covid-19 outbreaks, Hong Kong largely kept the virus out, recording fewer than 14,000 cases and 213 deaths since the pandemic began. Recent outbreaks of both Delta and Omicron variants ended a monthslong stretch of almost no locally transmitted cases.

With community transmissions rising to more than 100 over the weekend, all schools will be closed starting Monday, while restaurants remain closed for dine-in after 6 p.m. Gyms, pools and bars are shut. More concerning for international businesses and employees is a requirement that almost all arrivals spend three weeks in hotel quarantine or be sent to a hospital if they test positive for the virus. Most nonresidents are barred from entering.

See no ends and hopes

The highly transmissible omicron variant is going to be a “very difficult challenge” for Hong Kong as the city sticks to its zero-Covid policy, a former U.S. diplomat said. People understand that Hong Kong wants to reopen the border with mainland China, and that it needs to follow the same zero-Covid policy in order to achieve that. In the long run, however, the zero tolerance policy is “not sustainable and unnecessary, and the arrival of Omicron might make it even more challenging”.

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COVID-19 in Australia

Covid at a time of election

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There are roughly 300,000 active COVID cases in Australia. That’s a fair chunk of the voting population. It also begs the question as election day draws nearer: How will you vote if you catch COVID in election week?

How do I vote if I catch COVID during election week?

Emergency telephone voting has been introduced for voters forced to isolate with COVID. It’s something the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has been working on after the law was changed in February to allow people to vote over the phone.

 

Will I have to prove I have COVID?

Yes. You will need to provide proof of a positive COVID test from either a PCR test or a rapid antigen test (RAT). Tests must also be registered with your state or territory health authority. Voters will need to provide proof of the date and time of their positive PCR result, or the serial number of their RAT. 

How will telephone voting work?

The AEC says voters will have to go through a few steps to access telephone voting. You will need to register on the AEC website.

Once there, you will need to provide evidence of being COVID positive and make a declaration about your eligibility. You will then be matched to the electoral roll. Checks will also be made to confirm that you have not already voted by telephone or another method.

 

When will I be able to vote over the phone? 

The AEC says the service will be available to those who are required to be in COVID isolation for three days up to and including election day.

That’s Thursday May 19, Friday May 20 and Election Day, on Saturday May 21. These days come right after the final date to register for a postal vote, which is Wednesday May 18.

 

Can I use this service if I don’t have COVID?

No. Phone voting is a service that is usually only available to people who are visually impaired, or working in Antarctica. Australian Electoral Commissioner Tom Rogers has stressed that turning out to voting centres is preferred.

What if I’m a close contact?

Close contacts are no longer required to isolate in any Australian state or territory. The AEC says it expects voters to follow local health guidelines when they vote.

 

Will I be talking to an automated machine?

No. Thousands of new staff have been hired to help with the process.

 

How do I know my vote will be taken down properly?

When we asked about phone voting, this is the first thing the AEC said: “Electoral integrity is at the core of every aspect of the AEC’s service delivery and is paramount in our planning of the emergency telephone voting solution we’re delivering.”

They say phone voting will have the same level of supervision as every other voting service they run. They also said that their systems have undergone cyber-security assessments.

 

Sound like a hassle?

Pre-poll voting started on May 9. You can vote early, either in person or by post for a whole range of reasons, including if you will be out of the electorate you are enrolled to vote in on voting day, are further than 8 kilometres from a voting booth, are seriously ill or about to give birth (or caring for someone who is), in hospital or prison, travelling or unable to leave work, or if you are a silent elector.

You can also vote early if you have a reasonable fear for your safety. And, as mentioned earlier, the last date to register for a postal vote is on May 18. Or you can turn out to vote on election day, Saturday, May 21.

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COVID-19 in Australia

Fact-check: Covid recovery claim of Scott Morrison

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At the Liberal party launch on Sunday, Scott Morrison basically declared that Australia has had the best Covid recovery in the world.

He said: Our economic growth was higher than any other advanced economy, our AAA credit rating is intact, one of only nine countries to do that in the world … On almost every measure, growth, jobs, debt levels, fatality rates, vaccine rates, Australia’s recovery is leading the advanced world.

But is it 100% aacurate?

 

Economic growth 

If the standard of “advanced economies” is G7 nations, then Morrison’s boast is correct, but if the standard is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, it is not.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia’s economy at the end of 2021 was 3.4% bigger than it was at the start of the pandemic (December quarter, 2019).

According to the OECD, that beats G7 nations over that period, although the US is a close second (3.1%), and France (0.9%) and Canada (0.2%) were also positive.

In the G20, however, Australia’s performance lags Turkey (14.5%), China (10.2%), India (5.4%) – although these are developing economies, which in turn dragged the G20 average higher than Australia’s result (4.1%).

 

Jobs

According to the OECD, Australia’s March 2022 unemployment rate of 3.954% is higher than the Czech Republic (2.3%), Germany (2.9%), Hungary (3.2%), Israel (3.8%), Japan (2.6%), Korea (2.7%), Mexico and the Netherlands (3.3%) and the US (3.6%).

So, let’s just say this is one of the stats Morrison excluded with that all-important caveat, that Australia wins on “almost every measure”.

 

Government debt

Australia’s government debt, 84.38% of GDP, is lower than the OECD average of 94.3% but higher than 24 other OECD countries.

These include Germany (78.66%), Israel (73.16%), Sweden (59.73%), Korea (58.77%) and New Zealand (55.33%).

Fatalities

Australia has now had a total of 7,794 Covid deaths: 2,239 over 2020 and 2021 and 5,555 in 2022 so far.

In a November 2021 paper on excess mortality since January 2020, Australia beat almost all OECD countries, except Denmark, Iceland, Korea and Norway.

According to the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 dashboard, Australia reported 246 Covid deaths in the last seven days, more than several countries with larger populations including Germany (220), South Africa (159), and Spain (94).

The United Kingdom reported 377 deaths in the last week, despite having a population of 67m, more than double Australia’s (25.7m).

While Australia’s death rate was relatively low in the first two years of the pandemic, the health response is no longer world-beating.

 

Vaccine rates

According to the WHO, Australia sits near the top of countries ranked by total vaccine doses per 100 people, with 227 jabs per 100 people.

Australia is nevertheless behind: New Zealand (229), China (231), Singapore (239), Korea (244), and some countries with much smaller populations.

Australia is also doing better on the measure of primary vaccine doses than on number of people who have received their booster. By the measure of people boosted, much of Europe – including Italy, Germany, France and Greece – is beating Australia.

 

Verdict

On most measures, Australia’s economic and health response to Covid-19 has been better than other comparable nations over the first two years.

But Australia’s world-beating health response is now a thing of the past. After Australia ended its strict caps on international arrivals and other domestic health restrictions, fatalities have increased despite high vaccination rates.

On the economic measure elevated by Morrison, growth, his claim is true in comparison to the G7 but not the OECD.

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COVID-19 in Australia

An updated reminder about Covid

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Here’s a rough guide that will help you work out what your risk of infection is. 

 

When are people most contagious?

Generally, people are most contagious in the early stages of their infection. That’s roughly about one or two days before you start developing symptoms, and then another one or two days after that, according to Harvard Medical School.   

But it’s important to remember that one person’s infectious period can differ from another’s. And infected people can pass on the virus whether they develop symptoms or not. 

How long after exposure will symptoms start to show?

Probably three days — so, if you contracted the virus from someone you spent time with on Good Friday, your symptoms might have developed yesterday. That’s because research suggests the incubation period for the Omicron variant is shorter than earlier strains.

Harvard Medical School said it looked like Omicron symptoms start appearing three days after exposure, while it was four days for Delta and five days for earlier strains. However, some people who contract the virus will never develop symptoms.

What symptoms should I look out for?

We’re well-versed in the standard COVID-19 symptoms: cough, fever, loss of smell, headaches, fatigue and a runny nose. 

But gastro-like symptoms seem to be on the rise among COVID-19 patients lately, with reports of diarrhoea, vomiting and loss of appetite becoming common complaints. Other research suggests a hoarse voice is more common in Omicron cases than Delta strains. 

How long does it take to test positive after exposure?

It depends on which test you take. Preliminary research on the Omicron outbreak suggests rapid antigen tests (RATs) may not detect COVID-19 until at least two days after someone is exposed to the virus, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) says they’re not as accurate if you do not have symptoms.

So it’s likely you won’t test positive on a RAT until a few days after exposure, but you could still get a false negative result on a RAT even after a few days.

On the other hand, PCR tests are likely to detect the virus earlier than RATs. The TGA says those tests — the ones you have to go to a testing clinic for — can sometimes detect the virus even before people start noticing symptoms.

Peter Richmond, a vaccine and paediatrics expert at the University of Western Australia, said PCR tests could pick up very low levels of the virus and could return a positive result “potentially even before you’re infectious”.

So when should I get tested?

When you develop symptoms. Professor Richmond says you shouldn’t rush out to get tested the day after you think you could have been exposed to the virus. It’s unlikely the virus will be picked up that early.

The same goes for RATS. Registered nurse and disease control expert Thea van de Mortel from Griffith University recommended waiting a couple of days after being exposed to the virus before taking a rapid test — that’s because RATs usually don’t pick up the virus unless someone has symptoms.

 

Does that mean I should get re-tested?

If you’ve returned a negative result on a RAT but you still have symptoms, the advice is to isolate for another 24 hours before doing another RAT or have a PCR test.

That’s because RATs work by detecting a protein the virus produces, and giving yourself another day may give the virus more time to produce a detectable amount of that protein.

“In that interval, if you do have COVID, you will have increased the amount of virus you have and, therefore, increased the amount of protein and will then get a positive RAT,” Professor Richmond said.

“But if you’ve got a negative PCR with symptoms, you’re probably OK. You don’t need to necessarily repeat it the following day.”

 

How long are you contagious for after testing positive?

Most people will no longer be contagious after 10 days from the onset of their symptoms. 

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