On Sunday Australia surpassed 10,000 COVID-19 deaths, with experts and authorities warning case and fatality numbers will continue rising through winter.
The increase in fatalities in the first six months of 2022 means COVID-19 is poised to become the second leading cause of death in Australia this year, behind coronary heart disease.
It’s this rise that paints a more accurate picture of the pandemic’s impact in Australia, according to the Menzies Health Institute’s director in infectious diseases and immunology, Professor Nigel McMillan.
“We are overall ranked 16th in terms of deaths per 100,000 over the pandemic, however, that statistic is a bit misleading because most of the deaths have occurred in 2022,” says McMillan.
“We rank No. 5 in the world for increased death with a 405% increase from January 1 till July 1, 2022. The current 50 deaths per day is hardly noted and yet it is more than twice the daily road toll.”
Experts warn against complacency with COVID-19 cases expected to rise
The emergence of Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 as the world’s dominant strains of COVID-19 has coincided Australia’s continued easing of public restrictions.
But passing the 10,000-death marker serves as a timely reminder of COVID-19’s prevalence in the community, and experts want to see Australia consider the way it continues living with the pandemic.
While full vaccination – currently recommended at three doses – remains the most effective way to reduce the likelihood of severe illness or death from COVID-19, preventative measures like facemasks limit the disease’s spread from person to person.
Other measures like hand sanitation and physical distancing are also recommended by health authorities.
These practices are supported by experts like Dr Vinod Balasubramaniam, a molecular virologist at Monash University’s Malaysia Jeffrey Cheah School of Medicine, who says that maintaining these measures are critical to reduce cases and deaths in the community.
“Current vaccines by themselves are insufficient to stem transmission, and so increases in cases should be expected whenever public health and social measures are lifted, irrespective of vaccination coverage,” says Balasubramaniam.
“We will need to continue with effective measures as we bring transmission under control. This includes, for example, wearing well-fitting masks – in the case Omicron, a N95 based mask – in crowded areas, hand hygiene, physical distancing when required, improving ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and being supported to stay home if unwell.”
Six million eligible Australians yet to have COVID-19 booster
While a reduction in preventative measures in the community may influence the rise in case and death numbers, Balasubramaniam also points to the slow uptake of third vaccine doses and low childhood vaccination rates as possible factors increasing transmission.
Right now, just 70% of eligible people have received their booster vaccine and uptake is unevenly spread among states and territories.
Western Australia leads the nation for boosters with more than 82% of those eligible having had their third dose. On the other hand, just over 60% of eligible Queenslanders have received theirs.
It’s prompted federal health minister Mark Butler to call on booster-eligible Australians to roll up their sleeves.
“It is clear that we expect an increase in cases over the coming months,” Butler said on the weekend. “It just reinforces my call from the last couple of weeks to the almost six million Australians who are eligible but have not had their booster shot, which is to get out and get boosted.
“You are not fully protected against this subvariant with just two doses of the vaccine. It is critically important that you get the booster.”