ANU expert Professor Tracy Smart outlines we can all keep COVID safe this festive season.
Things have changed dramatically in the COVID-19 space over the past week as the Omicron variant has well and truly taken hold, with exponential growth in NSW, and big increases in cases elsewhere. And now it's come to the ACT, with 58 new cases reported today, a daily record. These numbers will likely only increase from here, particularly as state and territory governments have been slow to revise their plans to ease restrictions. Thank goodness the ACT Government has reintroduced a mask mandate for indoor public spaces effective from midnight last night. As we all know by now, masks are a simple but very effective way to keep this under some sort of control.
All signs point to us having a very COVID Christmas. There is no doubt that Omicron is much more transmissible than its predecessors and demonstrates immune/vaccine evasion. This, plus the fact that there is strong evidence that immunity levels drop from four months after the second vaccination (especially in older age groups and those who have had AstraZeneca vaccine), means that Australia is much more vulnerable to this variant than we thought we would be. It is very disappointing that this has happened, particularly when we were celebrating our exceptionally high vaccination rates and thought we were in for a bit of a break.
But it's not all bad news. The exponential rise in cases in parts of South Africa appears to be flattening and numbers have fallen in recent days. Importantly, they are still not seeing a big increase in hospitalisations. Evidence is also emerging that a third dose or booster works extremely well against the Omicron variant, returning you to non-Omicron levels of protection - around 90 per cent protection against symptomatic disease and nearly 100 per cent against severe disease/hospitalisation. New and extremely effective anti-viral drugs are coming onto the market and this will save lives and shorten illnesses.
By this stage of the pandemic we should be off our training wheels and all know what we need to do to keep safe without waiting for governments or doctors to tell us what to do.
So my advice for the holiday season is pretty simple:
- Don't panic - remain alert to the situation but not alarmed. You know the ways and means to keep yourself safe.
- Be COVID safe, including using the Check In CBR app.
- Wear a mask when in public - not to follow rules but to keep safe. I myself never stopped wearing one when out and about. It's not really that hard, and it minimises your chance of getting COVID AND of having to quarantine as a close contact.
- Get tested if you have ANY COVID-like symptoms or when advised to as a casual or close contact.
- Get a booster as soon as you can. ATAGI now advise a booster at the five-month mark following your second dose, but I think this will be reduced further in coming weeks. I hit my five-month mark on Tuesday and joined the Booster Club - it's all I wanted for Christmas!
And remember, even with the Omicron variant out and about, the greatest risk for the vaccinated is not the risk of severe disease to yourself, it's the dual risks of passing it on to someone, like a child, who is not vaccinated; and the risk of the disruption caused by being a close contact. After all, who wants to spend Christmas in quarantine?
Have a happy, safe, and COVID-free holiday season.
Professor Tracy Smart AO is the Public Health Lead, ANU COVID Response.