DAVID KOCH, HOST:
Would you believe new data has revealed the first wave of Omicron was at least twice the size of initial reports? According to a survey of blood donors, the number of Australian adults infected with COVID-19 by the end of February was 3.5 million people. That's compared to the official tally of 2.8 million, which included children. Meanwhile, thousands of people are dealing with the after-effects of the virus. It's estimated there could be up to 1.4 million Aussies living with long COVID. Joining me now is the Federal Health Minister, Mark Butler. Minister, these are staggering figures. How concerned are you?
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE:
They are staggering. They're just amazing figures. We thought already the case numbers earlier this year were extraordinary, but this new report suggesting, as you say, that literally millions of Australians caught COVID in the early part of the year is just quite staggering. We've known for some time with this virus that there are people who will catch it but have no symptoms. So obviously they don't go and get tested, they don't show up in the official data. And as we've got very high levels of vaccination, and also you've got this new variant, Omicron, which is a little less severe than the earlier variants like Delta, those numbers have obviously blown out. They're really quite extraordinary. But what we do know, David, is that there are still substantial case numbers. This virus is still with us. We're seeing many thousands of people infected every day. There are still almost 3000 people in hospital today with COVID. And we're seeing dozens and dozens of deaths every week. So this is still a very serious health challenge we can't take lightly.
Yeah. I think everybody knows someone who's got COVID at the moment. Look, you met up with health ministers from around the world yesterday. How do we compare globally? Are we any better or worse than the rest of the world?
Look, we've performed extraordinarily well. I mean, Australians really lined up, once the vaccines finally became available, to get those jabs in their arm. We have one of the highest rates of double vaccination in the world. We could do better on boosters. I'm keen to see what else we can do to get some energy into the booster campaign. There's still more than 6 million Australians who are eligible for that third shot but still haven't got it. And we need to get the message out that you're not fully protected, particularly against Omicron, until you have three doses. So we can be extraordinarily proud as a country of what we've done to counter this extraordinary once in a century pandemic. But there's more to do, more boosters, more energy into protecting residents in aged care. There's still dozens of people in our aged care facilities dying every week.
Okay. Well, an incentive might be- we're learning more about the effects of long COVID if you do get it. What's the data showing? How bad can long COVID be?
There are reports coming out almost every week from around the world really tracking the impact that COVID has on many millions of people around the world. When you get the sorts of numbers of COVID that we have here in Australia - literally millions and millions of Australians - that is going to translate into very big numbers of people experiencing long COVID symptoms. We don't yet know enough about it, but what we do know from across the world is this is going to be a major health challenge for the coming couple of years at least.
I'm very keen to talk with clinicians, with researchers, have a look at the international research as well, and start to make sure that our health system is prepared for what will be a very big wave of people experiencing these very long symptoms, whether it's brain fog, fatigue, headaches. You will have met people yourself, David, who've got this. After the initial phase of the illness has passed, they still find themselves really restricted in their ability to go about daily life.
Yep. And the flu's horrible this year as well. So we've got to get through winter.
It's a horrible winter.
Oh yeah, I know. And there's still a lot to go. Minister, thanks for joining us.