While the desire of many state and territory governments not to derail the Christmas plans of millions with tough measures to control the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant was understandable, the reintroduction of mask mandates, capacity limits, QR codes and the like as we move into the New Year is sensible and appropriate.
This variant is spreading like wildfire with experience both here and overseas indicating it is not just a disease of the unvaccinated. While the double-vaccinated seem less likely to suffer from severe illness as a result of Omicron than with Delta, they can catch it and spread it to the more vulnerable.
That is why additional precautions are now being taken in most nursing homes and aged care facilities around the country. It is also why getting the booster program up to speed is a major priority for all governments.
There is strong evidence the booster jab provides a much higher level of protection than just being double vaccinated.
It is for this reason ATAGI, which had already reduced the wait for the booster shot from six months to five, has now reduced it to four months as of January 4. This will make millions more Australians eligible for the third jab early in the New Year. And, as of January 31, the interval will be reduced further to three months.
There is good reason to hope, given assurances from the health minister and the chief medical officer, there are ample supplies of all vaccines available and the vaccination infrastructure which had started to wind down after double vaccination rates topped 80 per cent nationally will be ramped up in the New Year, that much of the country will have been triple-jabbed by March or April.
This is a remarkable effort and suggests the harsh lessons learned from the poor decisions made during the initial vaccination rollout have not been forgotten. That said, having 91 per cent of all Australians over 16 and 72 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds vaccinated by Christmas Eve was a remarkable achievement.
Omicron's apparently reduced potency, our high rates of vaccination, the action on boosters, the reintroduction of mask mandates and QR code registrations in virtually every jurisdiction, and the common sense approach being exhibited by millions of Australians since the new variant's arrival, are all reasons why we can look forward to 2022 with a quiet air of confidence.
While it is true hospitalisations have increased, they are occurring at a much lower rate with Omicron than with Delta. The system is, at this stage, coping well in even the hardest-hit states of Victoria and NSW.
This is in line with the outcome of preliminary studies in both the UK and in South Africa, where the variant originated. The UK study found a two-thirds reduction in the number of hospital admissions from Omicron over Delta.
The South African study indicated people were 70 to 80 per cent less likely to need hospitalisation, saying: "Among individuals with SGTF [Omicron] infection diagnosed between October 1 and November 30, 2021, 2.5 per cent (or 261 out of 10,547) were admitted to hospital compared to 12.8 per cent (or 121 out of 948) with non-SGTF [Omicron] infection."
If Australia follows a similar path then this is the best Christmas present we could hope for; a rapidly spreading and more benign version of COVID-19 that drives out the much more deadly Delta.
The Spanish flu epidemic of 100 years ago ended because it ran out of potential hosts. Populations had developed herd immunity.
Could Omicron, in conjunction with rising global vaccination rates, bring the curtain down on the pandemic in 2022?
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