Updated: Tuesday 19 January 2022
Wow - how did that happen? How did we go from being one of the success stories of the pandemic to now having one of the highest number of new cases per million people in the world? Yes, even higher than the US and UK.
There are several factors that have contributed to our predicament. Australian governments at all levels have been reluctant to roll back their reopening plans based on our high vaccination rates - despite early evidence of Omicron demonstrating 'vaccine escape' - in an attempt to avoid ruining everyone's Christmas. Chaos ensued with the misuse of PCR testing, particularly for interstate travel purposes, that quickly overwhelmed an under-pressure system. This compounded Australian governments' failure to adequately plan for a smooth transition to rapid antigen testing (the kind of RATs we want, but can't get our hands on at the moment), as part of the test, trace, isolate and quarantine (TTIQ) procedures.
The rapid changes to public health advice have resulted in confusion and perhaps a loss of trust, while a degree of misdirection and sensationalism in the media has not helped either. I also suspect complacency or COVID fatigue may have crept in among the double vaxxed, resulting in a failure to follow the basic public health measures we all should know by now.
It's easy to be angry about all of this, but it won't really help the current situation. Instead we need to pivot to getting through this Omicron outbreak.
I am confident the outbreak will burn itself out in coming weeks based on what we are seeing overseas. But it's going to be a stressful and confusing few weeks, particularly with constant changes to the way we manage positive cases, contacts and exposures, so here's my guide to help get us through it all.
You will have noticed that some public health restrictions are being gradually reintroduced. Mandatory mask wearing in indoor public spaces (including the workplace), will be with us for some time. The ACT Government introduced new public health measures late last week.
Familiarise yourself with these guidelines, but remember that public health is more than just following rules. It's up to us all to minimise risk of exposure to ourselves and others. This means getting a booster once you are eligible, but also thinking about the risks in everything you do. This doesn't mean locking yourself away in your basement - it's about working out what you need to do versus what you want to do. My advice is to only do the former, while taking every precaution while you do it. Wear your mask, avoid crowded places and large gatherings (especially indoors), and eat or drink outdoors if you can. good overview of how to assess your risk of catching COVID based on certain activities and your own COVID-safe behaviours can be found here. Rest assured, you will get back to doing the things you want too once we're past the worst of the outbreak.
A good example of this approach was in the Vice Chancellor's message last week, which asked us all to continue to work from home where we can, at least until the end of January. This is not only consistent with ACT Government advice but such a measure reduces risk for everyone.
And remember - even though many have adopted the attitude that "we are all going to get COVID" so why not just get it over and done with, it's still best not to catch and spread it. There is good evidence that the Omicron variant doesn't cause as severe disease as Delta but it is still not necessarily a 'mild' disease, particularly for the unvaccinated. Hospitalisation and ICU admissions are increasing due to the huge case load. Do your best to avoid it if you can.
What to do if you test positive
An increasing number of our staff and students have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past couple of weeks despite their efforts to stay safe. A few weeks ago, this would have meant that a PCR test and being formally contacted by ACT Health to undertake extensive contact tracing interviews. Not anymore.
The ACT Government has announced that testing positive on a rapid antigen test (RAT) is enough to confirm you have COVID-19. You are required to report your positive RAT to ACT Health online. This is important because, although you will no longer have to have a second test at the end of your mandatory seven-day quarantine, you cannot leave quarantine until you are officially released by ACT Health.
We also ask that you let us know if you test positive via the ANU ACT contact notification questionnaire.
ACT Health is no longer doing contact tracing in most circumstances, so it's also vital that you inform people you have been in contact with in the two days prior to getting symptoms or testing positive that you have COVID-19. They can then assess their risk as per the information in the Contacts and exposures section below.
Although you are no longer required contact a doctor or other healthcare professional if you have COVID-19 unless your symptoms become severe or you have certain risk factors, you should always speak to your GP if you are concerned or need advice. As an alternative, if you do need to see someone for COVID-19 or are positive and develop other health conditions, ACT Health has now opened a dedicated COVID-19 Clinic at the Garran Surge Centre.
For more information on this, see the ACT Health website. These resources may also be helpful:
- a recent article in The Conversation, I've tested positive to COVID. What should I do now? by Associate Professor Natasha Yates, a GP.
- recently updated Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) Guidelines: Managing COVID-19 at home with assistance from your general practice
Contacts and exposures
ACT Health has also changed their approach to test, trace, isolate and quarantine (TTIQ) and their definitions of contacts and exposures sites (see Information for people who are exposed to COVID-19). Exposure sites are no longer listed on their website or the Check in CBR app. Close and casual contacts are also now a thing of the past. The new categories are household contacts, and various levels of exposure risks - high, moderate and low. A summary of the implications of each type of exposures is in the table below, but it's best to go to the ACT Health website for more detail.
You share a house with someone who has COVID-19:
You have spent a long time (4 hours or more) with someone who has COVID-19:
You have spent less time (somewhere between 2 and 4 hours) with someone with COVID-19:
Had brief/distanced contact with someone with COVID-19:Monitor for symptoms and get tested if symptoms develop.
The differences between these risk levels are open to interpretation, but below are some examples of what this might look like in the work environment:
- If you were in the same building as a positive case but did not go near them or cross paths, and you wore a mask you are at effectively no risk and no further action is required.
- If you were in the same general vicinity as the positive case for brief periods of time but were wearing a mask at all times and maintained appropriate physical distancing low risk, you don't need to get tested but should monitor for symptoms.
- If you were in a work meeting of an hour or less with the positive case, but were all wearing masks and were following capacity limits and physical distancing requirements, you are probably at low risk.
- If you spent a couple of hours in the same office as the positive case and were not wearing your mask at all times, you are probably moderate risk and should get tested.
- If you spent a whole afternoon with the positive case in the same office and weren't wearing masks, you are probably high risk.
There is lots of nuance in these definitions, so if you are unsure or are worried, by all means get yourself tested via a RAT or email us at the COVID Response Office. We will do our best to assist you in interpreting your risk, particularly at work. Please note the University no longer requires you to notify us if you have been exposed to COVID-19 - only if you test positive.
It is a difficult and confusing time for everyone at present, and so it's understandable if you are feeling stressed. This is not the pandemic situation we have become accustomed to over the past two years and it's come on the back of a lot of positivity generated by our high vaccination rates and the thought that we would be moving into a much more stable "living with COVID" situation in 2022.
Remember that this is not what living with COVID looks like. We are in a severe outbreak, the worst we have faced as a nation to this point. Like all outbreaks, it will end and is likely that it will be over much more quickly than the Delta outbreak of last year. The University will be doing everything we can to ensure you have a safe work and study environment.
Be patient, be safe, and don't forget to reach out for support if you need it.