Blind decision-making unwise as Omicron cases overwhelm nationally, health experts warn

Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds a press conference at Parliament House. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds a press conference at Parliament House. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Health experts have urged governments to reconsider "letting it rip" Omicron policies, warning the worst is still ahead after the national tally reached more than 150,000 COVID-19 cases on Thursday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison emerged from a national cabinet meeting on Thursday, alongside chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly, to reiterate that their goal was not to stop everyone in the country getting COVID but to focus on hospital capacity and reducing deaths.

But epidemiologists and health policy leaders have warned the new approach was a "complete reversal" of Australia's position over the past two years.

The addition of positives recorded on rapid antigen tests in past week has resulted in a skyrocketing of numbers as the backlog is added to daily tallies.

University of Curtin global public health expert Professor Jaya Dantas said the numbers had overwhelmed test, trace, isolate and quarantine capacity, leading to a loss of valuable epidemiological data.

"Surveillance is very important so we have the capacity to look at our numbers accurately," she said.

"It's really important to continue with genomic testing, because we should know whether we have both the outbreaks happening at the same time," she said.

University of Sydney epidemiologist professor Alexandra Martiniuk said Australia's slow and steady approach to COVID-19 had been applauded globally.

But in recent months, the federal government had shifted gears and decided to speed up through the Omicron curve.

The goal throughout history has always been to reduce the number of people contracting infectious diseases, she said.

Allowing large portions of the population to contract the virus before long-term research had been completed was a dangerous game.

"Whether it's HIV or measles, or polio, tuberculosis, you just want to reduce the total number of people getting it," she said.

"The reality is getting Omicron doesn't prevent you from getting COVID again - that's not the way COVID works."

"In fact, it might just give you a disabling condition, which makes you more likely to die from the next time you get COVID."

'The peak is not the end'

Both epidemiologists warned without accurate data, it was hard to model when Omicron might reach its peak.

Due to country-wide shortages of rapid antigen tests and administrative lags in self-reporting, Professor Martiniuk said many milder cases will simply go unreported.

Without accurate case numbers, including the number of negative rapid antigen tests being taken, it's harder to predict what stage the virus is at.

"The challenge right now actually is, you know, modellers, they're very quiet because what you need for a model is pretty good data, to understand where you're headed, and what variables are changing," she said.

"If we go to this approach, we start flying a lot more blind and it's hard to make wise decisions in the dark when you're flying very quickly."

Some preliminary modelling has predicted the virus will peak at different times around the states, beginning with NSW late January and early next month.

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But Professor Martiniuk said it didn't mean Australians could expect daily tallies to return to the single digits soon after.

"We must not forget that the peak is not the end, you still got the downside," she said.

"It's still going to be a very bad and very critical phase because health systems are still full."

Professor Dantas, who has been tracking variants around the globe since the pandemic began, said South Africa's Omicron outbreak peaked after five-to-six weeks but there were different factors for Australia.

"We might be having both Delta and Omicron there and we just don't know how they each play out," she said.

"But nobody can predict that, it's a virus."

Until more is known, Professor Dantas said the government needed to reimplement simple and effective public health measures.

"None of this is like rocket science," she said.

"You put in mask mandates when you have an outbreak. You stop large events, and if you want to have events, like The Ashes, you have to reduce capacity. You ask people to show their proof of vaccination."

Repeating 'living with COVID' not a plan

Mr Morrison and Professor Kelly conceded on Thursday that many Australians will have gotten COVID in the last month, or known someone who had.

But they also cautioned young Australians should not recklessly go out with the intent of contracting the virus to get it done quickly.

"This is a new phase for all of us and we need to learn about living with the virus and living with the virus may mean that you may contract COVID-19," Professor Kelly said.

"For the vast majority of people, the overwhelming majority of people, this will be a mild illness so you need to be ready for that."

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Grattan Institute health program director Dr Stephen Duckett said the fatalistic messaging from politicians on Omicron likely led many younger Australians to getting it in the first place.

The former Health Department secretary said proper planning and foresight for potential future variants was needed to avoid systems being overwhelmed once more.

"We have to be thinking about and preparing for the scenarios and not getting caught out all the time," he said.

"We have this belief that all we have to do is repeat the words 'live with COVID, live with COVID, live with COVID' and that means we don't have to do anything.

"It's not a strategy. It's not a plan. And it's proven to be completely inadequate."

Mr Morrison also flagged isolation requirements would be eased further, allowing close contact essential workers to return immediately to workplaces once they receive a negative rapid test result.

Professor Dantas said the updated advice was a shock given it had previously so heavily relied on expert advice to inform its policy decisions

"It's completely a reversal of actual public health measures," she said.

"Putting people in that position that they feel that they have to work is not right.

"It's poor planning on the part of the government."

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This story 'Not rocket science': Hit the brakes on Omicron explosion, experts warn first appeared on The Canberra Times.