As a pre-Christmas wave of COVID-19 takes hold across Australia, experts predict true case numbers could be between four and six times greater than government reports.
And although hybrid immunity – individual protection built up by a combination of previous infection and vaccination – is believed to be preventing a wave at the magnitude of the Omicron emergence at the same time in 2021, the emerging XBB and BQ variants are expected to spread quickly, in the absence of widespread mitigation.
Australia recorded a week-on-week jump of almost 20,000 cases last Friday. In reality, the number of cases could be closer to 80,000, given lower testing levels across the nation.
That, says, Mater Health Services director of infectious diseases Associate Professor Paul Griffin, is partly due to misinformation surrounding SARS-CoV-2 infections among the public.
“People are still reporting to me that they are not going to get a test because ‘it can’t be COVID’,” says Griffin.
“There still remains a risk of COVID in the community … and, personally, I think there’s still a really good role for testing.
“One of the foundations of public health is surveillance, knowing roughly how many cases we have, where they are and in whom they are occurring.
“A lot of people don’t understand the limitations of rapid antigen testing, and report to me that they did a RAT, it was negative, they still had lots of symptoms, but went to work anyway.
“If you have symptoms and a negative rapid antigen test, it’s still quite possible – or even likely – you have COVID. That’s where laboratory-based testing [PCR testing] is still going to be really important.”
Australia has almost no COVID restrictions, but that’s misled people to discount the risk.
When Australia’s National Cabinet decided to repeal COVID-19 restrictions to their bare bones, experts were wary the language used might suggest the pandemic was all but over.
That’s not the case, as confirmed by thousands of new, positive tests over the past four weeks.
It emphasises the need for individuals to be conscious of COVID risks, says associate professor in epidemiology at Deakin University, Hassan Valley.
“To me, the issue is the gap in communication between removing mandates and where we are now,” says Vally.
“That gap gets filled by all of the misinformation… and it also gets interpreted as the fact that COVID is over.
“So, I think there are issues to do with communicating where we’re at and… I think that is one of the areas we haven’t done particularly well on.”
Vally points to mask wearing as one important physical barrier to preventing the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19 – “wear the best mask you can get your hands on” – as well as employing the other measures that were essential to spread reduction in the first years of the pandemic.
Some experts anticipate hybrid immunity within the population will diminish the current wave before Christmas.
“All of us need to make sure that we’re vaccinated and that our vaccines are up-to-date, and that’s been the continuing message for some time,” Vally says.
“We all know the great value that masks offer in terms of protection, especially in high-risk settings.
“On top of this, we still want to keep that message going of people isolating when ill, which is really something we should do for all infectious diseases. Maybe this is a point also where people, where they have the flexibility, can work from home a little bit more than what may become normal going forward.”
Matthew Agius is a science writer for Cosmos Magazine.
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