Why we shouldn’t raise the white flag on COVID fight

Why we shouldn’t raise the white flag on COVID fight

Very few Australians would not know someone who has had COVID-19. With more than 8 million having now tested positive, many would have had it themselves. On Sunday, the cumulative death toll reached 10,000 and the vast majority died this year.

The figure is barely a fraction of death totals recorded in similar countries around the world – in Britain, 10,000 had died from the virus by April 2020, and the same figure was recorded in just two months this year – but in Australia, a country that locked down for so long to keep its death toll low, the shift to daily double-digit death figures has been swift.

Melburnians in masks at the South Melbourne Market. Credit:Wayne Taylor

If learning to live with the virus was the goal, then maybe that has been achieved. But scratch the surface of most schools, the health system and many households and workplaces, and the chaos that is playing out because of the pandemic, along with a bad flu season, is not hard to spot.

There is, however, little appetite for a return of vaccine or mask mandates. And governments are not about to enforce new restrictions that have little public support. That’s the right call. After nearly 2½ years of living with a pandemic, it’s hard to argue that people don’t have a good understanding of how to lower their risk of being infected and staying out of hospital.

But that’s not to say governments should put up the white flag. The months ahead are likely to be challenging. According to Brendan Crabb and Mike Toole, from the Burnet medical institute, because the COVID-19 virus is so rapidly changing genetically via mutations, it’s able to avoid gained immunity. They point out that this is leading to reinfections becoming increasingly common and not necessarily milder than the initial infection.

In response, federal Health Minister Mark Butler has called on his department to find ways to greatly increase awareness of the antivirals Lagevrio and Paxlovid, which have had poor uptake. If taken soon after testing positive, they have proven to reduce severe illness significantly, which would keep people out of overcrowded hospitals.

There is also a push by some epidemiologists for Australia to speed up the approval of a fourth COVID-19 booster shot for the entire adult population, although others are arguing that it would be better to wait until a better Omicron-targeting vaccine is available. With Butler admitting that a third wave of Omicron infections was on the way, The Age would hope that a decision is made quickly.

And the campaign to get more people to agree to a booster shot must continue. While more than 90 per cent of those aged 12 and over have had two doses Australia-wide, only 62 per cent have received their booster shot. Recent figures from Victoria reveal the deadly consequence. Of the 2171 who died in the state from, or with, COVID-19, to June 28 this year, 72 per cent had not had their third dose. These numbers are surely reflected elsewhere. And in Sydney, recent data showed a third COVID-19 vaccine dose in middle-aged and older adults provided 65 per cent greater protection against hospitalisation or death from the virus than only two shots.

Australia has weathered the pandemic better than most. In France, nearly 1000 patients have been hospitalised each day with COVID-19 during the past two weeks. During one week in June, Britain had an estimated 2.3 million test positive.

That should not, however, mitigate the need for further efforts to contain the virus. It may not come in the form of lockdowns and mandates, but there is no shortage of steps that can be taken by individuals and governments to slow the spread.

Gay Alcorn sends a newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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