Australia’s chief medical officer has warned some states could hold off on elective surgeries due to the surge in COVID-19 and influenza cases.
As infections across the country surge, fuelled by more infectious sub-variants, Professor Paul Kelly said hospital systems had come under more pressure due to the rise in cases.
He said the emergence of influenza for the first time in three years in Australia had also made the issue worse.
“All of that together has caused issues in our hospitals, and so (postponing elective surgeries) is a pretty standard thing to be done at this time of year during the winter season,” he told ABC TV on Tuesday.
“With this increase now in the new variant of COVID, that has exacerbated that problem.”
Health Minister Mark Butler said a rise in infections still had a long way to go.
He indicated COVID-19 cases are not likely to peak nationally for at least four weeks during this third wave of infections.
“All of the modelling indicates that case numbers and hospitalisations have further to go over probably the next four to six weeks,” he told Melbourne radio 3AW on Tuesday.
“We’ve seen some data out this morning that suggests that COVID is the largest killer of Australians this year, taking over from coronary disease.”
Kelly said the rising number of reinfections had thrown a curveball for handling the virus.
“The new BA.4 and BA.5 (Omicron variants) are more infectious and there is strong evidence that you can get reinfected earlier,” he said.
University of Queensland Associate Professor Paul Griffin said people should not become complacent about the virus, warning those who had been recently infected could be reinfected in a matter of weeks.
“We are seeing reinfections being more common and in short intervals, and that is why we recommend the reinfection period be reduced to four weeks,” he told the Seven Network on Tuesday.
“If you get symptoms again, you need to assume it could be a new infection.”
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee has recommended the reinfection period be reduced from its current 12 weeks to 28 days, following the rise of cases of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.
This means people will be required to get tested and isolate if they re-develop symptoms 28 days after recovering from the virus, and could be reported and managed as new cases.
Victoria, NSW and Western Australia have already followed suit.
NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant says the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants are circulating widely in the state.
“They are more able to evade immunity gained from previous infection and vaccination.
“Reinfection is more likely and possible just weeks after a prior infection,” she said.
“We’re urging people who have recently had COVID-19, even if they left isolation in the past four weeks, not to be complacent.
“If you develop symptoms again, make sure to test and isolate.”
Griffin said the rise in new COVID-19 infections alongside an increase in influenza cases was also concerning.
“This is translating into significant numbers in hospitals, with predictions … we may exceed the hospitalisations we saw in the first big wave in January,” he said.
“We cannot assume people are protected just because they’ve had COVID.”
In other news, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has defended the scrapping of pandemic leave payments, laying the blame at the feet of the previous government.
The payments for workers who needed to spend time away from work while they isolated ended on June 30.
However, there have been calls for the payments to be reinstated as COVID case numbers and hospitalisations increase across the country, driven by new, infectious sub-variants.
Albanese said he wouldn’t bring back the payments due to the need for the Government to rein back spending.
“We inherited the former Government’s decision on this and we also inherited $1 trillion of debt,” he told reporters in Sydney.
“They are circumstances which my Government faces … there are a range of things we would like to do, but we intend to be fiscally responsible in how we deal with issues.”
COVID-19 DATA FROM THE LAST 24 HOURS
NSW: 10,806 cases, 20 deaths, 2049 in hospital with 58 in ICU
Victoria: 10,627 cases, 16 deaths, 737 in hospital with 39 in ICU
Tasmania: 1812 cases, one death, 100 in hospital with two in ICU.