The message is clear: the pandemic is not over and Australians should brace themselves for a winter of mounting COVID-19 infections and other lurgies as well.
Most important points:
- More than 144,000 cases of flu have been recorded in Australia this year
- COVID-19 variants are on the rise again
- Experts say Australia’s natural flu immunity is lower than usual this winter
Experts warn that new COVID variants, coupled with low flu immunity in the community, are likely to put pressure on Australian hospitals in the coming weeks.
The number of COVID cases has been falling across Australia since mid-April, but last week infections started to rise in many states.
The latest Omicron variants – BA.4 and BA.5 – are increasing in NSW, accounting for 31 percent of copies in the week ending June 18, up from 23 percent the week before.
The Omicron subvariant BA.5 is “stickier” than its predecessor, due to differences in its spike glycoprotein, which affects how the virus interacts with cells.
The NSW Health weekly surveillance report noted that the BA.4 and BA.5 variants are expected to become the dominant strains in the state and cause an increase in infections in the coming weeks.
Jacqui Driver, from Rozelle in Sydney’s inner west, has had COVID-19 twice – most recently two weeks ago.
She also lives with rheumatoid arthritis.
The medication she’s on to control that condition reduces her white blood cell count, meaning she’s more susceptible to serious illness and is a candidate for taking a COVID antiviral drug.
“When I get sick, I go downhill really fast,” she said.
“I was quite concerned when I contracted COVID…it was two days later before I started the medication, but I went from walking with really high temperatures and really terrible flu symptoms, a crazy sore throat, struggling to get out of bed, see you in 24 hours, a great feeling.”
While Ms Driver does not know which variant she was most recently infected with, one thing is clear: the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron strains are not only active in NSW.
The variants have also been found in wastewater in Victoria and in South Australia, where Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier This week warned again about the danger of complacency†
Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, said the BA.4 and BA.5 variants pushed up the number of cases.
“The concern with BA.5 is that we may see more people who are particularly unwell,” she said.
“It has been described by biologists as a sticky variety.
“In fact, it binds more effectively to some of the proteins in our lung linings than previous subvariants of Omicron.”
The number of COVID patients in Australian hospitals peaked at around 3,250 at the end of April, but has risen again this week.
Each state uses different methods to assess the number of COVID patients in hospital, making comparisons between states difficult.
However, the data shows that in NSW and Queensland in particular, the number of hospital admissions has increased.
The number of COVID deaths in Australia is also rising.
Since mid-May, the number of daily deaths from COVID has been between 40 and 45, but has increased slightly nationwide over the past week to about 50 a day.
The number of cases could also rise because a previous COVID infection did not protect against the new variants, Professor Bennett said.
After contracting COVID for the second time, Ms Driver was placed in a virtual hospital, where a machine was delivered to her home to measure her oxygen levels.
“The hospital staff are watching you and making sure you are breathing and that you are healthy and that you feel really cared for,” she said.
“They’re literally there 24 hours a day.”
Little protection against flu
Rising COVID-19 transmission isn’t the only problem looming over Australian hospitals this winter.
Professor Bennett warned that the community had little natural protection against the flu this year – a byproduct of the social distancing restrictions imposed on people in 2020 and 2021.
“Maybe you’ll find that in areas where you’re high [influenza] the uptake of the vaccine helps control it, but the reduced immunity of the population really puts us more at risk, and the season started early,” she said.
All states are seeing an increase in respiratory illnesses, emergency room presentations, and hospitalizations. This is in part due to increased COVID-19 PCR testing, which also signals cases of the flu.
During the last non-pandemic flu season, in 2019, Australia registered more than 287,700 cases.
In the first six months of this year, the country already registered more than half of that total (144,500).
This year there have been nearly 9,400 presentations to emergency departments at hospitals with flu-like illness in NSW so far, of which more than 1,300 have been admitted.
NSW Health expects a sharp rise in flu activity into the winter and is calling on residents to get vaccinated before the peak hits.
But it’s not just the country’s most populous state that’s seeing more cases.
Tasmania has already surpassed its 2019 flu rate by 24 cases and the Northern Territory has doubled its pre-COVID records, from 1,878 cases in 2019 to 3,806 in the 12 months to last week.
Chris Moy, chairman of the Australia Medical Association, said the spike could increase pressure on health services across the country as more people start reporting to hospitals.
“We’ve had a very early and high peak and flu,” said Dr. moy.
“We had a really bad, not just numbers, but translations, hospital cases of flu, [and that could mean] we would be in complete disaster right now and it could be people still not really starting to focus again… and getting the COVID vaccine shots and trying to stay out of the hospital if they possibly can.
Declining rates of PCR testing and the use of rapid antigen testing have led to underestimation of the true incidence of COVID.
A study of the National Center for Immunization Research and Monitoring measuring COVID antibodies in blood donors showed that the number of people infected with COVID in the first two months of the year was at least double what was officially reported.
Posted † updated
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