Millions of Australians have been warned to wear face masks as the nation’s latest COVID wave peaks over the busy Christmas period.
NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant has urged people to consider wearing masks, even as case numbers steady across Australia’s eastern states.
“Wearing masks is an effective measure, but it is a personal choice, but think about those around you,” she said in the latest NSW update on the virus on Thursday.
“We still request people to wear masks in hospitals and aged care facilities, and it is important that people comply with those requirements in those settings.
“You can just do these little things that reduce the chances or the frequency of you getting COVID infections.”
Australia’s COVID cases topped 112,000 for the week to last Friday – up slightly on the previous week. They were up in Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT, but had fallen in Victoria and Western Australia.
There were also 232 COVID deaths across the country, also an increase on the past week.
Dr Chant said it was important that those who were vulnerable to the virus and eligible for antivirals planned how they would get the drugs, if they needed them.
“Frail elderly and people with underlying health conditions are more likely to experience serious health outcomes with COVID, such as hospitalisations and death. And that’s why the antivirals are targeted at those groups,” she said.
Dr Chant’s warning was echoed by Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton. In his most recent report, last Friday, he said Victoria’s case numbers appeared to have plateaued, with several key measures – including active cases, cases in hospital and cases in intensive care – decreasing slightly for the first time in almost eight weeks.
“However, multiple variants continue to circulate in Victoria and the transmission risks increase over the holiday period due to social gatherings and events,” Professor Sutton said.
“Early testing and diagnosis are essential to access COVID medicines.
“It is critically important that people with symptoms continue to test for COVID-19 and that people who test positive, and are eligible for antiviral treatments, get those treatments as soon as possible. Early action will lessen the impact on the community, the health system, and other services.”
Queensland chief health officer John Gerrard also urged caution during the holiday season. He told the Brisbane Times earlier that cases in the Sunshine State were likely to peak within the next week – making Christmas Day a potential super-spreader event.
University of South Australia epidemiologist Adrian Esterman said last week the peak of the latest wave was close. But he said it was less easy to predict because the latest data was based only on reported numbers.
“One of the problems is we don’t have a good handle on how many cases there are,” Professor Esterman said.
“All we have is the reported cases and they’re the tip of the iceberg because most people these days aren’t reporting it.”
Access to free PCR tests will be limited from January 1. From that date a referral from a medical or nurse practitioner will be needed for patients to receive a free PCR test at locations not run by a state or territory government.
Dr Chant warned people to be organised for infections during the holiday period, with GPs operating on reduced hours and many testing sites closed.
“Rapid antigen tests are useful, but if you have symptoms and you test negative on a RAT you should not rely on that. Particularly if you are eligible for antivirals, we will urge you to get a PCR test,” she said.
Professor Esterman said COVID cases would decline slowly once the wave peaked, ahead of another wave starting – a process that would continue for the foreseeable future.
Authorities had “decided the Australian population has to live with COVID-19″ despite about 12 per cent of those infected ending up with long-term health problems”, he said.