A spike in COVID cases in NSW has authorities worried, as a new, more transmissible variant of the Omicron strain emerges.
COVID infections spiked to a six-week high of 16,288 in NSW on Thursday – up more than 3000 on Wednesday’s tally to the highest level since 17,316 cases were report on January 27.
Health Minister Brad Hazzard appeared at a budget estimates hearing on Thursday, where he said the BA2 sub-variant of Omicron, which is thought to be more infectious than the BA1 lineage, was becoming the dominant offshoot.
“It is concerning us greatly, that we are seeing an increase in daily cases,” Mr Hazzard said.
Preliminarily data from the University of NSW suggest the BA2 sub-variant is even more more transmissible than the original Omicron strain. BA2 – the so-called “stealth variant – has been circulating in Australia since late January.
“We could be looking at cases more than double what we’re currently getting,” he said.
Mr Hazzard was also concerned that people had become complacent about COVID booster shots, with numbers in NSW stalling at 56.3 per cent of eligible people with three vaccine doses.
“While the community may have gone to sleep on the virus, the virus has not gone to sleep on the community,” Mr Hazzard said.
“The virus can still wreak havoc if we don’t go out there and go and get our boosters fast.”
Acting chief health officer Marianne Gale said the technical term for the Omicron BA2 sub-variant was a “sublineage” and the dominant form of that in NSW had been BA1.
“What we are seeing … is a trend to an increasing rise in the BA2 sublineage.
“Experience has shown us overseas that BA2 can quite quickly overtake BA1 to become the dominant sublineage.”
The sublineage was more transmissible but there was no evidence it was more or less severe, she said.
Dr Gale said other likely causes of the recent increase in numbers included people mixing more with each other, returning to offices and sending children to school. Mask rules were also widely eased across NSW on February 25.
Dr Gale said cases were likely to keep rising for weeks – perhaps until May.
“We don’t know exactly how high the peak may be, how long it may last, [or] exactly when it will come,” she said.
Meanwhile, there are concerns about health resources in the flood-ravaged communities in northern NSW.
One of the six evacuation centres in northern NSW could be converted into a COVID-19 isolation facility to deal with cases of the virus there.
Evacuated flood victims in northern NSW who have tested positive were being housed at Casino District Hospital, the hearing was told.
NSW Health’s acting Deputy Secretary for Patient Experience and State Health Services Disaster Response Wayne Jones, said the government was considering turning the evacuation centre at Goonellabah Sports and Aquatic Centre into a specific COVID-19 isolation centre for flood victims.
Mr Hazzard said the government was trying to ensure virus-positive people arriving at evacuation centres were able to be cared for in a safe location.
Dr Gale said cases had been reported at evacuation centres, but there had so far been no outbreaks.
NSW Health reported the deaths of two women and two men in the 24 hours to 4pm on Wednesday.
One person was in their 60s, one in their 70s and two were in their 80s.
There are 991 people in hospital with the virus. They include 39 in intensive care and 14 on ventilators.
Nearly 80 per cent of children aged 12-15 have had two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and 48.1 per cent of five to 11-year-olds have had one jab.
– with AAP