Mandatory masks and stay at home orders could be back within weeks and some elective surgeries halted as Australia braces for a devastating new Covid wave which is already packing out ICU wards.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), backed by some of the architects of Australia’s past lockdowns, is pushing for the return of restrictive laws to stop the new and highly contagious Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.
Australia is already battling a potentially lethal ‘multi-demic’ cocktail of respiratory viruses, including the flu, RSV, para-influenza, adenovirus and HMPV, which are spreading like wildfire through a population with immune systems weakened by two years of lockdown restrictions.
The rapid spread of the multi-demic bugs is also being fuelled by cold and damp weather, and comes as more than 4,000 people are hospitalised with Covid and ICU cases surge by 40 per cent across the country.
Several Queensland hospitals have paused all of their elective surgeries as the health system comes under increasing pressure from the influx of cases including the state’s largest hospital and health service Metro North Health.
Royal Brisbane Hospital, Prince Charles Hospital, Caboolture Hospital, Redcliffe Hospital, Kilocy Hospital has suspended all elective surgery while Gold Coast HHS has paused non-urgent surgery at its hospitals.
On Thursday, the Federal government signed off on a fourth Covid booster shot for anyone over 30, with those over 50 told to get jabbed urgently.
The move was recommended by ATAGI, but hidden in the small print was a recommendation for further public health measures.
Mandatory masks and working from home could be back within weeks as the nation braces for a devastating new Covid wave which is already packing out intensive care units
The move was recommended by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, but hidden in the small print was a warning of further measures
‘The impact of this expanded vaccine booster recommendation alone is expected to be limited,’ the ATAGI statement admitted.
‘ATAGI advises other public health and social measures, in addition to vaccination, will have the greatest impact against the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 surge in infections.
‘This includes increased use of masks.’
Victoria has already flagged the return of Covid restrictions after Premier Dan Andrews extended the state’s pandemic declaration for another three months.
‘There continues to be a serious risk to public health which requires continued public health measures to reduce the risk of transmission and hospitalisation,’ he warned as he confirmed the extension.
Victoria has already flagged the return of Covid restrictions after Premier Dan Andrews extended the state’s pandemic declaration for another three months
The move was slammed by Victorian Liberals leader Matthew Guy who blasted the premier’s ‘lust for power and control’.
Mr Guy added: ‘It’s time to end the state of emergency.
‘It’s time to end mandates outside of health and aged care sector. Victorians deserve to have control of their lives handed back.
‘The threat of mandates, lockdowns and restrictions remain, which overshadows efforts for us to recover…but they play second to a premier with a lust for power and control.’
New Victorian health minister Mary-Anne Thomas admitted the decision on the return of masks and working from home was imminent.
‘The pandemic declaration allows me to make that decision and I haven’t yet made it,’ she said on Thursday.
‘The public health team are looking at modelling and they’re consulting with their colleagues and various ideas are floated but no decisions have been taken.’
New Victorian health minister Mary-Anne Thomas admitted the decision on the return of masks and working from home was imminent
Symptoms of new BA4 and BA5 subvariants
Loss of taste
Loss of smell
Muscle aches and pains
Red or irritated eyes
Discolouration of fingers or toes
Queensland’s health chief John Gerrard revealed the return of mask mandates was already under discussion among state health chiefs.
‘I can say that nationally, there is increasing pressure, there is a school of thought that we should be mandating masks again,’ he told 4BC radio on Saturday.
‘We are continually reviewing all aspects of our pandemic response including the potential need for mask mandates in different settings.’
The virulent new strains have the highest rate of transmission of any of the major mutant variations since the disease first spread worldwide in 2020.
BA.4 and BA.5 have a basic reproduction number (R0) rate of 18.6, meaning, without any restrictions, every infected patient would likely infect 18 or 19 people.
That compares to the original 2020 Wuhan Covid strain’s R0 of 3.3, Delta’s 5.1 and the Omicron BA.1 strain’s 9.5, which sparked the widespread outbreak that has smashed Australia since January, killing 7000 in seven months.
The latest subvariants are also feared to have evolved to be much more resistant to existing vaccines and acquired immunity from previous infections.
Now health chiefs are delivering grim warnings about the BA.4 and BA.5 wave about to sweep through families across the country.
On Thursday, there were 3,921 people with Covid in hospitals across the country, less than the 5,000-plus peak around Australia Day, but up 24 per cent since mid-May.
Federal health minister Mark Butler has warned of the devastating Covid wave about to hit Australia as he signed off a fourth Covid jab for anyone over 30
ELECTIVE SURGERIES AT RISK
Some elective surgeries may be suspended again in Queensland as the state government pleads with residents to get their booster jabs amid a third COVID-19 wave.
Just under 700 public and private hospital patients have the virus and 7.6 per cent of Queensland Health workers are off on some form of sick leave.
‘I have over 2000 staff that are furloughed just because of COVID,’ Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said on Thursday.
Some hospitals are likely to suspend lower-category elective surgeries depending on where staffing pressures are impacting the most.
‘There’s no decision to have any statewide suspension. We’re allowing the local hospitals to manage that based on their own demands and pressures,’ Ms D’Ath said.
With the current virus wave yet to hit its peak, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.
‘The modelling says that we should expect that it will get worse leading up to the end of the month,’ Ms D’Ath said.
Her comments came as the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) expanded the criteria for who can get a second COVID-19 booster.
From July 11, people over 50 will be recommended to receive a fourth vaccine dose, or second booster shot.
Those between 30 and 49 will from Monday be able to have a fourth dose if they choose to do so.
But there are concerns about vaccine levels for Queenslanders who are already eligible.
Less than half of those who fit the existing criteria have come forward for their fourth vaccine dose, or second booster.
‘The latest data shows that if you are over 65 and you have not received your fourth booster, you are four more times likely to get the new (Omicron) variants,’ Ms D’Ath said.
Just 63 per cent of eligible people have had their third booster, while more than 94 per cent of the eligible population have had at least one vaccination.
‘There’s no reason why our third dose and our fourth dose should not be at those same levels,’ Ms D’Ath said.
Expanding eligibility for a second booster to include healthcare workers should also be considered, the Australian Medical Association said.
‘We’re … asking for ATAGI to consider healthcare workers. They are at the front line,’ AMA Queensland president Maria Boulton told ABC radio on Thursday.
‘We need to keep those healthcare workers at work. We need to protect them with everything we have.’
The state recorded just under 6,000 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday and 17 more deaths.
There are more than 39,800 active cases.
– Australian Associated Press
‘It’s becoming a very serious pressure on our health and hospital system,’ said federal health minister Mark Butler.
‘States across the country are reporting increased numbers of cases and increased numbers of people requiring admission to hospital because of COVID.
Queensland’s CHO John Gerrard revealed the return of mask mandates was already under discussion among state health chiefs
‘There are now almost 4,000 hospital beds across the country filled by patients with Covid. That’s an increase of almost 1,000 in just the last few weeks.
‘And the number of people in intensive care units or ICUs is up 40 per cent in the past week to 10 days alone – and we’re only just at the early stages.
‘There’s no question those numbers are going to continue to increase.’
NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant has begged locals to wear masks when in public to try to minimise the spread of the disease.
‘We have to create an enabled environment to say that actually wearing a mask is an okay thing to do,’ Dr Chant said.
NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant has begged locals to wear masks when in public to try to minimise the spread of the disease
NSW health minister Brad Hazzard said the country needed to ‘go back to the basic messages’.
He added: ‘Wear a mask if you can’t socially distance, definitely wash your hands, wash your hands as much as you possibly can, and stay home if you’re sick.’
And Mr Butler echoed the need for the public to wear masks.
‘I call on people when they’re indoors, and not able to socially distance, to give very strong consideration to wearing a mask,’ he said on Thursday.
‘It will reduce the impact of transmission.’
But he added: ‘We have passed the time of very broad-based mask mandates.’
Despite giving the green light for the fourth Covid jab, federal health minister Mark Butler admitted millions of Australians had yet to even get their third dose
Despite giving the green light for the fourth Covid jab, Mr Butler admitted millions of Australians had yet to even get their third dose.
‘There are still more than five million for whom it has been more than six months since their second dose – and are eligible for a third booster dose – but have not taken it up,’ he said.
‘What is particularly unique and different about BA.4 and BA.5 is that they are very good at evading people’s immunity.
‘Just because you had Covid earlier this year does not mean you are now not at risk of getting Covid again, with this third Omicron wave.
‘Being up to date with your vaccines is crucial to protecting you against the risk of severe disease and particularly the risk of hospitalisation or worse.’
HEALTH MINISTER MARK BUTLER’S CHILLING COVID WAVE WARNING
‘We’re still only in the early stages of a building third Omicron wave, just this year alone.
‘It’s a wave that is driven by new subvariants of the Omicron variant BA.4 and BA.5 and it’s becoming a very serious pressure on our health and hospital system.
‘What is clear about BA.4 and BA.5 is that they are even more transmissible, even more infectious than the earliest sub variants that drove the summer BA.1 wave in January and the BA.2 wave in April and May.
‘They are more transmissible but what is particularly unique and different about BA.4 and BA.5 is that they are very good at evading people’s immunity.
‘So if you have immunity through vaccines, or through having had Covid before, you are still susceptible to the dominant subvariant of Covid in the community right now.
‘Just because you had Covid earlier this year does not mean you are now not at risk of getting Covid again with this third Omicron wave.
‘As I said this is placing real pressure on our health and hospital systems.
‘States across the country are reporting increased numbers of cases and increased numbers of people requiring admission to hospital because of Covid.
‘There are now almost 4000 hospital beds across the country filled by patients with Covid.
‘That’s an increase of almost 1000 in just the last few weeks. And the number of people in intensive care units or ICUs is up 40 per cent in the past week or 10 days alone, and we’re only just at the early stages.
‘Being up to date with your vaccines is crucial to protecting you against the risk of severe disease and particularly the risk of hospitalisation or worse – even if you have had COVID before.
‘There was a terrific take up of the first two doses of vaccine in Australia once the vaccines finally arrived in this country. We have one of the highest rates of double dose vaccination in the world.
‘But what we know about the Omicron variants is that two doses of vaccine is simply not enough to give you protection, even if you have been infected.
‘There are still more than 5 million Australians for whom it has been more than six months since their second dose are eligible for a third booster dose but have not taken it up.
‘I urge you to go out and get that third dose that will provide you and people around you with more protection against this highly infectious subvariant BA.4 and BA.5.
‘For more than three months, over 65 year olds and other groups as well have been able to get a fourth winter boost dose. But that again has not been fully taken up.
‘More than 40 per cent of people over the age of 65 have not yet had their fourth dose . I encourage you to do that – older Australians are far more susceptible to the risk of severe disease or admission to hospital under the subvariants.
‘It is crucial that you get a fourth booster dose as soon as possible.
‘Now I’ve decided to accept further advice from the technical advisory group on immunisation to expand the fourth dose through this winter to a much larger group in the population.
‘Until today the fourth dose was available only to Australians over 65, to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians over the age of 50, and a range of younger groups at particular risk of Covid illness, including younger Australians with a compromised immunity.
‘Today that group will expand dramatically. There are three elements to this decision. The Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation has recommended that all Australians aged 50 and over take a fourth dose of Covid vaccines.
‘ATAGI has also recommended that, for Australians aged between 30 and 49 who feel that they want to take a fourth dose, that will be available to them but will be an individual decision. It is not a specific recommendation or a target.
‘And the third element of the advice that I’ve accepted today is that the interval between doses of vaccine or the interval between having been infected with Covid and getting your next dose of vaccination has been narrowed from four months down to three months now.
‘This decision will reduce severe disease and will relieve pressure from our hospital system. That decision takes effect from the coming Monday July 11 to give primary care providers in particular our community pharmacy sector, the thousands of GP surgeries that have been working hard to deliver vaccinations now for some time – to start making bookings.
‘There are almost 10,000 points of primary care, pharmacies and GP surgeries where you can go and get this fourth dose. We have lots of capacity in the system.
‘They’re running at a much lower level of activity than they were at the peak of vaccinations last year, about 80 per cent lower so there’s lots of capacity in the system.
‘And there is lots of vaccine in the system, more than enough to accommodate, first of all, people catching up with those booster doses.
‘I’ve said they’re overdue for their third dose, or even a fourth dose if there are over 65s as well as the impact of the decisions are just announced today.
‘Our government is absolutely committed to doing everything we can to get Australia through this difficult winter already in just a few weeks of government.
‘We’ve extended the funding to state hospital systems to help them with the impact of Covid – a decision worth more than three quarters of a billion dollars, a decision made by the Prime Minister, premiers and chief ministers.
‘We’ve rolled out widespread campaigns over the past couple of weeks, reinforcing the importance of people being up to date with a vaccination and getting those booster doses for which they are eligible.
‘And today I’ve announced the expansion of this crucial fourth dose to get us through the winter.
‘Finally, I’ve also put out a strong case before the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, asking them to expand access to these highly effective oral antiviral treatments, tablets and capsules that can be taken at home and dramatically reduce the risk of severe disease particularly for older Australians and am eagerly awaiting advice from that advisory committee about our submission.’