After COVID-19 case numbers soared to record levels, Premier Dominic Perrottet has congratulated NSW on being a world leader in fighting the virus, writes Professor Kerryn Phelps.
‘We’ve done so well and come this far — so now’s no time to be complacent. Let’s keep safe, keep our recovery on track and make this the summer we’ve worked so hard for. If it’s been five months since your second shot, go out and get a booster.’
Done so well?
What planet is he on? Since the NSW Government decided to stray from health advice back in June and let Delta run, in case they haven’t noticed, we haven’t been doing so well.
Businesses have suffered, schools have been forced to remote learning and doing their own contact tracing while trying to scrounge for funds to arrange their own air filters for poorly ventilated classrooms, families trying to hang onto their employment as they supervise home learning. Vulnerable people have been forced into social isolation, families separated from loved ones, the creative industries decimated.
We could have done well, but the decision to let the virus run meant all of these sacrifices – which we were, on the whole, willing to make for the greater good – were in vain. We kept case numbers low while vaccination rates increased. Then dropped the ball.
In the same week that the Omicron variant started to take off exponentially, the Government inexplicably decided to just scrap QR codes, masks, and track and trace. Meanwhile, NSW Health instructed the citizens of NSW to do DIY contact tracing while the sick suffer the symptoms of COVID-19 as they treat themselves at home.
No, we are not “doing well”.
And what’s this about “let’s keep safe”? Keep safe? We are anything but safe because of decisions by the NSW State and Federal Governments. Delta is still circulating. There is a lot we don’t know about Omicron, but the information that is emerging tells us that it is not “mild” and it is several times more transmissible than Delta.
As far as going out and getting your booster after five months, we have another round of Hunger Games going on out there as the announcement to bring forward third doses or so-called “booster shots” was made before GPs or pharmacies had been warned to increase their supplies and many staff had already gone on leave.
GP colleagues are telling me that their next delivery of booster shots is weeks away and many doctors and support staff are on a well-deserved break after a year from hell, leaving many people being unable to “join the booster club” until February 2022.
On top of that, double dose AstraZeneca vaccines provide minimal protection against the Omicron variant and those who were vaccinated with AZ late in the rollout may not be able to get an mRNA booster for months.
Our children are not “keeping safe” from Omicron because anyone under 12 has no COVID-19 vaccine protection at all.
And who exactly is complacent? “Complacent” is removing safeguards as COVID-19 case numbers surge.
Complacent is not having purpose-built quarantine facilities two years into a pandemic.
Complacent is abandoning any quarantine or even isolation for incoming international travellers.
It’s like putting your foot on the accelerator to speed up when you see an oncoming car.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is telling us not to concern ourselves with case numbers. Hospitalisations, ICU admissions and deaths were where we should be focusing our attention.
It is yet another example of political prestidigitation: “Look over there, nothing to see here!” Well, actually, cases are important. We absolutely need to know what is happening in the community. Firstly, we have to be able to plan the surge in hospitalisations that will lag behind the wave of community cases by one to two weeks.
Hospitals are already under pressure. Not currently just because of COVID-19 cases, but because health and aged care staff have to isolate for two weeks from close contact with the virus to protect patients and other health care workers. As the case numbers in the community rise, so will the numbers of doctors and nurses and allied health and support staff who become infected or have to isolate. We just do not have the numbers of skilled people to fill those absences.
Not only will COVID-19 care suffer, but other routine medical treatment will be postponed or cancelled. Elective surgery is already being cancelled and visitors banned from NSW hospitals.
Then there are all of the first responders who may catch or contact COVID-19 and have to take time off work because they are sick or needing to isolate. With COVID-19 raging uncontrolled through the population, where do you conjure up paramedics, police officers and firefighters?
Hospitalisations are nowhere near the whole story. In Australia, we have not even begun to address the looming pandemic of long COVID. People who, even after a “mild” case of COVID-19 can be unwell and disabled for months or indefinitely. Catch the disease, even after being vaccinated, and you can still develop long COVID.
We also have to come to grips with the reality that some people are unable to be fully vaccinated because of serious adverse effects from the COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots with the currently available vaccines may not be suitable for them.
We do not know how long immunity from the third dose will last, but right now it is our best chance of holding back the tide. We also have the challenge of emerging variants. Omicron will not be the last, so vaccines will need to evolve if we are to have any chance of containing the pandemic any time soon.
We will also need to develop other preventive medications and effective treatments.
In the meantime, with the Government seemingly driving us into that oncoming traffic, we as a community need to take action to protect ourselves and each other.
Wear a high-quality mask, especially at all times when you are indoors (except when you are at home).
Limit social interactions and avoid larger groups, especially indoors.
Reconsider end of year parties and work gatherings.
I know it is the festive season and you may look forward to Christmas all year, but think about the people around your family table who might be most vulnerable to this highly contagious infection — children, grandparents, anyone with a chronic medical condition, anyone immune-suppressed or undergoing cancer treatment. Can you postpone your family celebration? If you do plan a get-together, can it be outdoors?
Does your church have an online service on Christmas Day that you can join in, rather than sitting in a crowd of people singing and mingling?
Businesses need to consider their risk to staff and patrons. The rising case numbers are already, yet again, adversely impacting businesses because of the Government’s premature easing of restrictions and it can only get worse for business and the economy as people take their own precautions.
Ironically, letting COVID-19 rip through the population will damage businesses and the economy as workers become sick and have to isolate, people stop going to venues or shopping for discretionary items and cancel functions and holiday plans. It just doesn’t make sense on any level.
I know people in healthcare and education who are reconsidering their career futures to mitigate the risk to themselves and their families.
Reinstating QR codes and insisting on mask wearing will help to protect lives and keep the economy going, not restrict freedoms.
We can only estimate the potential impact of an uncontrolled combined Delta and Omicron pandemic in Australia.
OzSAGE has developed a list of recommendations for governments, including reinstating QR codes and mask mandates, retaining testing and tracing capability, mandating ventilation standards, reinstating isolation of international arrivals and making rapid antigen testing free and widely available. Third vaccine doses need to be rolled out swiftly and efficiently.
This pandemic is way too serious for glib reassurances and magical thinking.
If the NSW and Victorian and Federal Governments fail to change course, OzSAGE predicts an unprecedented surge leading to a holiday catastrophe for individuals, families, businesses and the health system across Australia.
Professor Kerryn Phelps AM is a general practitioner, an advisory board member and conjoint professor at NICM Health Research Institute, a Climate 200 advisory panel member, an OzSAGE member, a City of Sydney Councillor, former Federal Member for Wentworth and former president of the Australian Medical Association. You can follow her on Twitter @drkerrynphelps.
Support independent journalism Subscribe to IA.