In the 24 hours to Tuesday evening, NSW recorded 1360 new COVID-19 cases, of which 21 were the Omicron variant. With less than 200 cases recorded only two weeks ago, the state is witnessing exponential growth in COVID infections.
However, hospitalisations and deaths remain low for now, with 168 people currently being treated for COVID-19 and 21 in ICU.
With Western Australia the only state with substantive travel restrictions still in place, NSW and Victoria are the exemplar locations for other states that have more recently eased restrictions.
Associate Professor Holly Seale, an infectious disease social scientist at the University of New South Wales, says the increase in NSW case numbers was expected due to restrictions being eased in October. “It does reflect the fact that whilst the vaccines do a fabulous job in reducing the risk of the severe outcomes, they do a moderate job in terms of transmission.”
In addition, the new, more transmissible Omicron variant has been linked with some superspreading events that involved large gatherings of people in the past few days.
The spike of COVID-19 cases has not deterred the NSW government from going ahead with further easing COVID rules, including more freedoms for unvaccinated people who are more likely to spread the infection.
Seale says NSW could potentially experience a surge in people needing hospital care in the following weeks as the virus continues to spread. But the high vaccination rate might prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed like last winter.
Booster shots can help avoid just that. “All the evidence is showing that these boosters are doing exactly what they need to do,” Seale says. Several studies have shown that a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine is effective even against the new Omicron variant.
While the broader community remains relatively protected by widespread immunity, more cases in the community imply an increase in individual risk. That is especially concerning for the elderly, immunosuppressed people, those with comorbidities or pregnant women despite being vaccinated.
“We’re going into summer, and where people are wanting to catch up and socialise,” says Seale. “But there are ways to reduce your risk.”
She says continuing to wear a mask in indoor venues or large gatherings where social distancing is not possible remains an easy and highly effective measure anyone can take.
Catching up outside, minimising the number of people you meet, monitoring for symptoms and getting tested if you think you might have been exposed to a positive case can reduce your and your loved ones’ risk.
Seale cautions that people should be mindful when meeting unvaccinated friends or family, as they have a higher risk of transmitting the virus. “There may be the need to have difficult conversations if you are catching up with someone who is unvaccinated,” she says, adding that it’s essential to discuss with them how to minimise risk.
This Christmas, says Seale, we have to remain vigilant: “We are still not out of this.”
Dr Manuela Callari is a Sydney-based freelance science writer who specialises in health and medical stories.
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