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At a critical time for pandemic control, wrapping the latest news

The summer holiday shutdown; the rapid spread of the Omicron variant; the dangerous political decision making (looking at you NSW Premier Dominic Perottet, in particular); the fatigue of the health workforce and staffing shortages; the vulnerability of many Australians, including children, who are not vaccinated at all, never mind with a third dose; the unclear and confusing messaging to the general public at a time of increased socialising.

These are just some of the challenges we face at this critical time for pandemic control. Below we compile a rolling post with some of the latest updates.

The post is being updated from the top; ie the most recent updates come first.


“Governments, please govern…”

A Twitter thread today by Professor Tarun Weeramanthri, president of the Public Health Association of Australia:

“We’ve all worked hard, we needed a rest before Christmas. I resolved not to tweet this week, but feel forced into it. Following views on COVID and Omicron are mine as President of the PHAA (not related to current work for WA Govt advising on vaccine rollout).

Government positions across Australia are at odds with sensible risk management. Wishing and hoping are not enough. We seem to have staked everything on Omicron being less severe, pushing Delta out, and ending the pandemic globally without further variants emerging.

After two years of sensible public health measures in Australia, public health is being reduced by some, especially in NSW, to an ideology of mainly personal responsibility. Governments seem to be sidelining mainstream public health advice, and opening up ‘regardless’.

By the time we know the answer to ‘What will the impact of Omicron be on our population and health system?’, it will be too late to change course effectively. There is an alternative. Use the marvellous gift of time and introduce sensible mitigations (eg see @RealOzSAGE) now…

…while we see what happens elsewhere in the world. We gather together at Christmas, and on other special days, because we care about each other, including healthcare workers who will pick up the pieces if we get this wrong. Governments, please govern. Change course this week.

Follow on Twitter: @tarunw


Staying safe: advice from OzSAGE

OzSAGE has released a series of recommendations for reducing the risk of getting infected and passing COVID-19 to others.

These include:
• Get vaccinated and get as many vaccine doses as you are eligible for, as soon as possible. For most children aged 12 to 17 years, this means being double-vaccinated. For all adults, this means being triple-vaccinated.
• Get your booster/third dose as soon as you are eligible. Third dose boosters are now available from five months since your second dose. Pfizer and Moderna are similar vaccines and you should get whichever you can access earliest.
• Minimise contact with unvaccinated persons and do not be afraid to ask if people are vaccinated. While it may cause some social friction, spending less time with unvaccinated family members and friends will be safer for you and them, and for infants and children who are not yet eligible for vaccination. Approaching these conversations with kindness may also help encourage your unvaccinated loved ones
to reconsider their decision.
• Always wear a well-fitting mask when inside or in a crowded location outside – masks are effective in reducing the risk of you getting COVID-19 or passing it on to others if you are infected.
• Minimise the risk of COVID-19 in the lead-up to large events on Christmas and New Year’s. For example, avoid large gatherings, shop online and have gifts and groceries delivered. Consider skipping some functions
entirely, particularly if you are planning to spend time over the holidays with anyone at higher risk (older folks, people who have medical conditions or a compromised immune system, etc).
• When hosting events such as Christmas lunch, conduct them outdoors as much as possible. Keep people a little bit further apart that you would have pre-pandemic, to reduce the potential for short-range aerosol transmission. Open as many doors and  windows in your house or apartment as you can, to have safe, clean indoor air. Flush out the virus. Consider asking Santa for a portable HEPA filter and run it continually
indoors.
• If you have the mildest of COVID-19 symptoms or are a close contact, visit a testing site because a PCR test will give the most accurate result. If you don’t have any symptoms, use a rapid antigen test (RAT) which can be bought from the supermarket or pharmacy. The afternoon or morning prior to social events (for
example, Christmas Day), use a RAT and ask your party guests to get tested. If you can afford a pack of tests, you can test people at the door and get the results in 15 minutes while they wait outdoors in the fresh air.
• If you are an essential worker, make plans for childcare for if you get called to work (short staffing is more likely to happen as the number of cases increase).
• Have a plan for if someone in your household gets COVID-19. Consider how to arrange things for others dependent on you: adults, children and animals, in case you suddenly become a contact and need to isolate or are unwell.
• Are you visiting someone who is elderly or immunosuppressed? It is important that you know that even if this person is vaccinated (such as your grandparents, a friend with a kidney transplant, a neighbour having cancer treatment) they are still at risk of catching COVID-19 and can get very sick.
None of these recommendations are perfect, but the more of them you implement, the lower
the chance of catching or passing on the virus.

Read the full statement here.

See also the new OzSAGE statement: Protecting children from COVID-19: more urgent than ever.


Sounding the alarm: Aboriginal health services in the Northern Territory

The Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance NT has put out this statement calling for urgent action to address the spreading outbreak in the Barkly region and reiterating its opposition to the opening of borders at midnight [last night].

AMSANT CEO John Paterson said the outbreak comes at the worst possible time with the Commonwealth surge vaccination workforce now ceasing work till January and with primary health care staffing shortages at an unprecedented level.

“We are calling – now – for a community-by-community lockdown on our communities in the Barkly-Tennant Creek region until at least COB Friday.

“We are calling on the army to be bought in to work with the police on enforcement and to bolster our health workforce if we are unable to get health staff from other sources urgently.”

All of the seven remote clinics in the Barkly LGA needs to be well staffed so any cases can be detected promptly through screening and so that vaccination can be offered to all eligible community members given low vaccination rates across the region. We also need to ensure that there is enough surge vaccination and testing staff in Tennant Creek.

Paterson said: “This requires additional staff to be bought in immediately across the Barkly given we are facing unprecedented staffing shortages and the Barkly is struggling more than most areas to staff remote clinics across the region.

“It will be very difficult to find nurses through usual sources at this time of year so army clinical staff or AUSMAT teams should be mobilised to ensure there is enough support.

“We know, and both Territory and Commonwealth governments know, that the Barkly is the LGA with the lowest Indigenous vaccination rates in the NT, with Commonwealth data from last week demonstrating that only 45 percent of Aboriginal people are fully vaccinated. The health profile of Aboriginal people in the Barkly is one of the worst in the NT with very high rates of diabetes and kidney disease.

“We are pleased that Tennant Creek is in lockdown – this is very necessary and needs to be extended despite the hardship this is causing.

“We are urging the Government to put every single community in the Barkly into a community lockdown to stop people moving between communities. At present people can move between remote communities in the Barkly but they are unable to leave the whole region without permission. We do not know how many communities may be harbouring the virus and we need to take action to reduce the risk that the outbreak spreads to further communities.”

The Barkly is a vast and sparsely populated region with many back roads.

“We just do not have enough police across the whole Barkly region enforce the lockdown in Tennant and lockout in the Barkly,” said Paterson.

“AMSANT still thinks it is unwise to open the borders today. The Government needs to have a low threshold for reversing the decision and requiring at least one week of home quarantine.

“We are the most at risk jurisdiction in Australia with the sickest population and the most fragile health system. We cannot afford to take the risks that other jurisdictions are taking.

“AMSANT is asking that the NT Government immediately introduce a mask mandate for all indoor spaces and large outdoor gatherings, and institute a vaccine passport system for entertainment venues including pubs, clubs, restaurants and non-essential shops right across the NT.

“Tasmania has just introduced a mask mandate, and Victoria and Queensland have a strong vaccine passport system. These are prudent measures which will reduce the risk of super spreader events and drive up vaccination rates in our people which are still too low.”


What other services are closed for summer holidays?

The AMSANT post highlights how the summer holiday shutdown is affecting the COVID responses.

In NSW, the regular COVID-19 update from the NSW Health COVID-19 Critical Intelligence Unit produced its last edition for the year on 17 December; the next won’t be until after 17 January, 2022.


See Croakey’s extensive archive of COVID coverage.

 

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