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Health and medical leaders urge National Cabinet to prioritise public health action

***This article was updated on 22 December with links to the outcomes of the National Cabinet meeting – see bottom of the post ***

Introduction by Croakey: National Cabinet will hold an emergency meeting tomorrow (22 December) amid strong calls from health and medical leaders for urgent public health action to address the escalating threat of the Omicron variant.

The Australian Medical Association, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Rural Doctors Association of Australia and many other health leaders are urging public health action as global concern escalates.

As the Prime Minister continues to emphasise the importance of “personal responsibility”, public health leader Professor Tarun Weeramanthri said: “Governments, please govern. Change course this week”.

The World Health Organization’s Director-General Dr Terdros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has urged “hard decisions” this festive season, saying “an event cancelled is better than a life cancelled”.

In the United States, where Omicron accounted for 73 percent of cases at last count on 18 December, Dr Tom Frieden, former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the transmissibility of this variant is unprecedented.


Alison Barrett writes:

Most public health restrictions were removed in NSW last week as they forged on with their roadmap to reopen, a decision that will have a significant impact on all Australians.

The past week has seen record daily cases in both NSW and South Australia, cases doubling every 48 hours in Queensland, and lockdown extended in Tennant Creek in Northern Territory.

Testing sites across the country have been overburdened (in particular in NSW, NT and SA) with reports of travellers, close contacts and symptomatic people waiting between two and eight hours to fulfil necessary testing requirements.

Concerns have been raised about the inequitable access to rapid antigen testing, with many calling for them to be made freely available, and easily accessible.

Reintroduction of mask mandates and other restrictions, and decreasing the duration between second and third doses of COVID-19 vaccines are likely to be some of the issues discussed.

Other issues for the meeting, as highlighted in this summary of recent tweets and news, should include increasing capacity for testing, protecting remote communities, including in the Northern Territory, a government-led public health response to Omicron and planning for future variants.

Remote Northern Territory communities

As COVID-19 cases increase in Northern Territory, calls are being made for lockdown in all remote communities in the Barkly region in Northern Territory. The community of Ali Curung, of which only 34 percent of residents are double vaccinated, recorded its first COVID case on the weekend.

The lockdown in Tennant Creek has been extended.

The Australian Medical Association’s NT branch is calling for a mask mandate and lockdown amid a surge in COVID-19 cases being treated at the Alice Springs hospital.

Testing sites overwhelmed

Long queues reported in South Australia as travellers, close contacts and symptomatic people get tested for COVID-19.

In Queensland, testing clinics under pressure.

Rapid antigen tests

See the thread above.

Commenting on this article in The Conversation about rapid antigen tests:

Omicron five times more likely to reinfect than Delta

Based on PCR-confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 in England between 23 November and 11 December 2021, researchers at the Imperial College of London calculated that the Omicron variant was 5.41 more likely to reinfect than the Delta variant.

“Hospitalisation and asymptomatic infection indicators were not significantly associated with Omicron infection, suggesting at most limited changes in severity compared with Delta,” Ferguson and colleagues wrote.

They wrote in ‘Report 49 – growth, population distribution and immune escape of Omicron in England’, published by Imperial College London on 16 December.

As per previous reports, they also found a higher likelihood of an Omicron case in people two doses of Vaxzevria (AstraZeneca) or Pfizer, when compared to Delta. Three doses of vaccine increased protection.

In England, the Omicron variant is doubling every two days. As at 19 December 2021:

Calculating the impact

Read this thread by Dr Dominic Pimenta, chairman of the Healthcare Workers’ Foundation in the UK, with calculations of the potential impact of a more transmissible, ‘mild’ Omicron.

‘Personal responsibility’ mantra undermines public health responses

See Leask’s thread.


Global perspectives

Further reading and viewing

Our leaders are living in wonderland if they think COVID case numbers don’t matter: Professor Adrian Esterman, epidemiologist, The University of South Australia.

A must-watch video and important message by Dr Dan Suan, immunologist at Garvan Institute of Medical Research, who recorded a very clear message about his concerns with the situation in NSW.

Following are some key takeaways from Dr Suan.

Three things we know about Omicron:

1) It is more contagious than Delta or anything else we’ve seen. It is able to stay in the air much longer, and one person can infect many more people.

2) Almost everyone is at risk of catching Omicron. The people who have the lowest risk of catching Omicron are people with healthy immune system who are triple-vaccinated. Professor Mary-Louise McLaws calculates that 30-35 percent of Australians have symptomatic protection from Omicron (see Tweet below).

3) It is important to be honest in science when we don’t know something. At this point in time, we are not 100 percent certain of the impact of Omicron on disease severity. However, even if it is mild, if we’re going to experience 25,000 cases per day as stated by NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard last week, that results in many people with severe COVID-19.

Suan recommends the following five things for everyone to do over the next few days:

1) put your mask back on indoors

2) reconsider your events for the upcoming week

3) if you have any symptoms, you must get tested and isolate. If in NSW, you need to call your contacts and advise them

4) get your booster if due

5) talk to family about Christmas to ensure you can make it COVID safe. (Croakey has summarised OzSages’ recommendations for a COVID-safe Christmas here).

PostScript on 22 December: For an update on National Cabinet outcomes, read the Prime Minister’s statement, a transcript of his press conference, and reports by The Guardian, The ABC.


See Croakey’s archive of COVID wrap columns by Alison Barrett.

 

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