Fourth COVID vaccines are being considered as Australia’s virus cases surge, ahead of a predicted further leap during winter.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said advice from Australia’s leading vaccine advisory group was likely by the end of March on whether a fourth dose would be recommended for people over 65.
Mr Hunt said it another vaccine shot was more likely than not for some groups of the population ahead of winter, when a spike in both COVID and flu infections is forecast.
“I can’t pre-empt the decision but … they are potentially going to recommend a second booster, which would be potentially the start of an annual program for people 65 and above,” he said on Friday.
“We’re expecting that advice from ATAGI within the next three weeks, if not earlier.”
It came as NSW authorities warned of a spike lasting possibly until May as the BA2 “stealth” variant of Omicron drove an escalation of cases in that state.
NSW reported 14,034 more infections on Friday, down from more than 16,000 on Thursday but still well up on its lows of recent weeks. There were also another seven COVID-related deaths in the state.
“The virus can still wreak havoc if we don’t go out there and go and get our boosters fast,” NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told a state government committee hearing on Thursday.
Cases have also climbed from recent lows in Victoria, although not as high as in its northern neighbour. Victoria had another 6811 virus infections on Friday, and 10 more deaths.
It has also enlisted Bunnings to help drive a push to increase booster take-up. The hardware giant will host 20 temporary clinics in Melbourne and regional Victoria from next week.
“Come down, get your snag, get your tools and get a vaccination,” Health Minister Martin Foley said on Friday.
“What we need to do, particularly as we’re heading towards the winter season, is to keep those vaccination levels up as high as we possibly can.
“There are some communities where we know we need to do more to lift those vaccination rates [in] some of the outer suburbs, some of the regional centres and some communities with culturally and linguistically diverse [people].”
The federal government has also announced it will spend $2.1 billion to prepare for the current winter. The plan was expected to be a major topic of conversation when Prime Minister Scott Morrison meets state and territory leaders at Friday’s national cabinet meeting.
Money will be spent helping protect the residential aged care and disability care sectors, protecting vulnerable groups – and buying more vaccines.
Mr Hunt said a scheme that provided free rapid tests for concession card holders would be extended until the end of July.
So far, more than 5.5 million people have collected the free tests, with 20 million tests distributed among concession card holders.
Mr Hunt said despite the predicted jump in virus cases, they were unlikely to reach the highs of last summer, at the peak of the Omicron wave.
“We saw an absolute peak in Omicron cases and we’re not expecting anything at those levels,” Mr Hunt said.
“COVID infections are a little bit like a bouncing ball – the highest bounce is likely to have been in January and then will progressively decrease over time, but there will be a bounce as it goes into winter.”
Despite concerns about the new Omicron sub-variant, deputy chief medical officer Sonya Bennett said there had been preparations for new variants.
“What we’ve learnt over the last few years is we now have a range of tools in the toolkit … so we now have adequate and ready access to rapid antigen tests and adequate access to treatments for those at risk,” she said.
“We know that public health and social measures need to be implemented in the worst-case scenario.”
– with AAP