Health experts have renewed calls for Australians to get COVID-19 booster doses as infections and hospitalisations rise again.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said continuing reinfections from the Omicron variant were escaping immune responses bolstered by vaccinations.
“We are seeing reinfection, we know that Omicron, having had a previous dose of one of the other variants of COVID-19, did escape that immune protection from both a previous dose and from only two doses of vaccine,” Professor Kelly told Sky News.
“Sub-variants of Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 have now become the dominant strain in the UK [and are] growing, particularly on the east coast of Australia.”
Professor Kelly’s warning came days after University of South Australia professor of biostatistics Adrian Esterman told The New Daily that COVID deaths were slowly rising in Australia as governments wound back public health measures. He expected them to average 50 a day by the end of July.
“We’re seeing increasing case numbers, potentially a more severe disease, rising death rates, and we’ve reduced even more public health measures,” Professor Esterman said.
“If you look at the middle of April, let’s just say two months ago, we were averaging about 30 deaths a day, right? If you look at it now, it’s more like 40 deaths a day. And in a month’s time, I expect it to be 50 deaths a day.”
Victoria reported another 20 COVID deaths on Friday, while there were 14 in NSW, six in Queensland. There were four in South Australia and one each in Western Australia and Tasmania.
But Professor Kelly said while the virus’ latest variants were more transmissible, there had so far been no uptick in severity.
“We will see reinfections over the coming weeks and months, unfortunately with that one. But what we’re not seeing is a large increase in severe disease,” he said.
“That’s really due to the vaccine protection, which can be boosted with a third and fourth dose.”
Treatments and the availability of COVID-19 antivirals had also aided the response to serious cases of the virus, Professor Kelly said.
Epidemiologists have also warned of a rise in reinfection and people developing severe bouts of the disease.
Deakin University epidemiology chairwoman Catherine Bennett said the broader community would be at greater risk of infection in coming weeks.
“We are seeing what we feared might happen, particularly the convergence of a troubling flu season after having had a couple of years of respite,” she told Sky News on Thursday.
“With COVID, we’re also seeing the numbers stay high and that’s partly because Omicron now has that possibility of having reinfection in ways we haven’t seen before, particularly with these new variants.”
NSW health authorities said Omicron variants were likely to become the dominant virus strains in coming weeks. They have warned of a rise in infections even among those who have already had COVID-19.
Professor Bennett said each new variant would be more transmissible, making it more difficult for people to avoid catching the virus when out in public.
She said some of those who had received booster shots early in the rollout might have their protection from the virus starting to wane.
Across Australia, only 70 per cent of the eligible population has received booster doses.
“The message is, if you haven’t had your booster, have it,” Professor Bennett said.
“It’s really important that people get tested early and are made aware whether they’re candidates or not for antivirals, so that might help with high infection rates.”
Victoria will lift some of its restrictions at midnight on Friday, with positive cases from Saturday able to drive a member of their household to or from education or work, as long as they don’t leave their vehicle.
Mandates for third vaccine doses will also be lifted for workers in education, food distribution and quarantine settings. Vaccine policies will now be up to individual workplaces.
Queensland unveiled a similar policy on vaccine mandates on Friday. In addition, vaccines will no longer be required for visitors to residential aged care, disability accommodation and corrective service facilities from June 30.
Opposition health spokeswoman Anne Ruston said while cases were rising in parts of the country, emergency pandemic measures across states and territories should be lifted.
“Australians really are asking their premiers and their chief ministers to let them get on with their lives,” she told Sky News.
“We actually have to learn to live with this virus, and the way to learn to live with it is to allow people to make their decisions.”
Australia’s latest 24-hour COVID data
NSW: 9136 cases, 14 deaths, 1455 in hospital with 54 in ICU
Victoria: 7723 cases, 20 deaths, 412 in hospital with 27 in ICU
Queensland: 4520 cases, six deaths, 522 in hospital with seven in ICU
Tasmania: 1018 cases, one death, 47 in hospital with three in ICU
NT: 248 cases, no deaths, 13 in hospital with none in ICU
ACT: 1038 new cases, no deaths, 99 in hospital, one in ICU
Western Australia: 4749 cases, one death, 239 in hospital with eight in ICU
South Australia: 2311 cases, four deaths, 200 in hospital with 10 in ICU