The Victorian government has ignored health advice calling for mask mandates in schools, early childhood, shops and hospitality.
It has instead strongly recommended Victorians wear masks indoors and in crowded spaces from 11.59pm on Tuesday.
Health Minister Mary-Anne Thomas confirmed she rejected the mask mandate advice from Victoria’s acting chief health officer Professor Ben Cowie.
“I made a decision based on the advice that I had received that further mandating masks was not the most effective way to get the message out about the importance of mask wearing,” Ms Thomas said on Tuesday.
She said the new recommendations were sensible and balanced as the state’s COVID cases and hospitalisations rose.
From 11.59pm on Tuesday, Victorians who test positive to COVID-19 will also be exempt from testing and isolating for only four weeks rather than 12. The changes follow Australian Health Protection Principal Committee advice and have also been adopted by NSW, Western Australia and Queensland.
Victorian employers are also being asked to consider work from home arrangements for staff, although no recommendation has been issued.
Victoria had 10,627 COVID cases and 16 more deaths on Tuesday, with hospitalisations also up further. There are 737 virus patients in the state’s hospitals, up 20 from Monday and almost 200 in the past week.
NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant said the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants were also circulating widely in her state.
“They are more able to evade immunity gained from previous infection and vaccination. Reinfection is more likely and possible just weeks after a prior infection,” she said on Tuesday.
“We’re urging people who have recently had COVID-19, even if they left isolation in the past four weeks, not to be complacent. If you develop symptoms again, make sure to test and isolate.”
Federal Health Minister Mark Butler said COVID cases were not likely to peak nationally for at least four weeks.
“All of the modelling indicates that case numbers and hospitalisations have further to go over probably the next four to six weeks,” he told Melbourne radio 3AW on Tuesday.
“We’ve seen some data out this morning that suggests that COVID is the largest killer of Australians this year, taking over from coronary disease.”
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly warned on Tuesday that some states could pause elective surgeries due to the surge in COVID and influenza cases.
Professor Kelly said hospital systems were under more pressure as virus cases spiked across Australia. The emergence of influenza for the first time in three years had made the issue worse.
“All of that together has caused issues in our hospitals, and so [postponing elective surgeries] is a pretty standard thing to be done at this time of year during the winter season,” he told ABC TV.
“With this increase now in the new variants of COVID, that has exacerbated that problem.”
Despite the growing caseload, and rising fatalities, Deakin University epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett said mask mandates and other restrictions were not having the same impact they once did,
She has called for different measures to better educate the public.
“We need this to not be a one-size-fits-all message from a podium,” Professor Bennett said.
“This has got to be community based.
“We could do a much better job at collecting and sharing information that will help people understand the risks and how to manage them.
“We need to let people know what’s happening in their local area. We need to gather the information to demonstrate what mass wearing does to a person’s risk.”
People should also get winter booster shots, Professor Bennett said.
The Victorian government will start an advertising blitz promoting COVID-19 vaccine boosters, while more grants are available to help small businesses buy ventilators.
The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry backed the government’s decision to choose recommendations over mandates.
“This puts the decision-making back on the individual and businesses,” chief executive Paul Guerra said in a statement.
“This is a commonsense approach which enables people to make their own decisions to protect their health, the health of their clients and their family and friends.”
University of Queensland Associate Professor Paul Griffin said people should not become complacent about the virus, warning those who had been recently infected could be reinfected in a matter of weeks.
“We are seeing reinfections being more common and in short intervals, and that is why we recommend the reinfection period be reduced to four weeks,” he told the Seven Network on Tuesday.
“If you get symptoms again, you need to assume it could be a new infection.”
Professor Griffin said the rise in new COVID-19 infections alongside an increase in influenza cases was also concerning.
“This is translating into significant numbers in hospitals, with predictions … we may exceed the hospitalisations we saw in the first big wave in January,” he said.
“We cannot assume people are protected just because they’ve had COVID, you need to be up to date with your vaccines and linking with therapies if you are eligible.”
This week, more people become became eligible for a fourth vaccine dose – or a second booster shot – as well as antiviral treatments to help offset symptoms.
Australians over 70 who test positive for the virus were from Monday offered access to antivirals on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
Access was also expanded to people over 50 with two or more risk factors for severe disease, and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people over 30 with two or more risk factors.
Anyone 18 or over and immunocompromised may also be eligible.
Normally costing more than $1000, the two antiviral treatments are now available for $6.80 for concession card holders and about $40 for everyone else.
Australia’s latest 24-hour COVID data
NSW: 10,806 cases, 20 deaths, 2049 in hospital with 58 in ICU
Victoria: 10,627 cases, 16 deaths, 737 in hospital with 39 in ICU
Queensland: 6768 cases, 15 deaths, 860 in hospital with 12 in ICU
Tasmania: 1812 cases, one death, 100 in hospital with two in ICU