COVID-19 – Omicron update from CMO Professor Paul Kelly

An update from Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, about the new Omicron variant of concern.

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General public

The Government and myself, as Chief Medical Officer and chair of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), are continually monitoring the COVID-19 situation in Australia and internationally, in collaboration with the medical experts, with the goal of keeping our community safe and continuing our world leading response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

I wish to address selective and misleading media reporting about ongoing modelling used to inform decision making by Governments.

Recent modelling, both in Australia and internationally, presents a range of potential scenarios as a result of the Omicron variant. While modelling is an important tool to help guide decision-making, it is just one of a range of tools and cannot be viewed in isolation. Modelling helps to prepare for all scenarios and to mitigate the risk associated with the pandemic.

A preliminary scenario, of many being considered to help inform decision making, presents one of the worst case of all potential scenarios including assumptions that the Omicron variant is as severe as the Delta variant, an absence of hospital surge capacity, a highly limited booster program, no change to baseline public health and social measures and an absence of spontaneous behaviour change in the face of rising case numbers. None of these five assumptions represent the likely state of events, let alone all of them together, therefore presenting that scenario as the likely scenario that will occur is highly misleading.

Australia has a world class COVID-19 response and this has meant the numbers modelled previously, particularly early in the pandemic, have not been realised. Early modelling in 2020 at the start of the outbreak suggested that there would be 35,000 ICU beds required within 17 weeks of an uncontrolled outbreak. This was never realised.

The Omicron variant, first detected on 9 November 2021, and its international spread has required ongoing advice to be provided to Governments. Evidence about the characteristics of Omicron is still emerging but early trends seen both internationally and within Australia suggest that it is more transmissible.

However, early indications around hospitalisation, ICU admission and death show that Omicron could be far less than Delta and other variants. Importantly, after almost four weeks of Omicron in Australia there are currently no confirmed Omicron cases in ICU and no deaths confirmed to date.

Omicron is here in Australia, it will be an unwanted guest with us for Christmas, but we can and must do what we can to reduce its impact on each of us and our loved ones.

Australia has world leading vaccination rates with approximately 94% of Australians sixteen years and over having received at least one COVID-19 vaccine and approximately 91% are fully vaccinated.

Australia was also one of the first countries in the world to move to a whole of population national booster program. The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has recommended that the eligibility for booster doses be brought forward from six months to five months from completion of the primary vaccination course and they continue to review the emerging evidence. The Government will continue to follow the medical advice and bring forward that interval if necessary.

There are two key take home messages for policy makers. The first, a collaborative effort is required to get as many third boosters doses into arms in the coming month as possible, in line with the ATAGI advice. The second is that public health and social measures, adapted to local epidemiology, will also have an important effect on slowing the spread of Omicron, as it has done with previous variants.

For now, there are some easy steps we can take as individuals to help our community, including practicing good hand hygiene and wearing a mask when indoors. It protects you and it protects the people around you. I am already putting my mask on wherever I go. It’s a simple defence that can help us all.

Every single person eligible for a booster vaccine should look to make an appointment when they are eligible to further protect yourself against Omicron. There is plenty of supply around the country and there’s no reason to wait when it is your turn, consistent with the medical advice.

I am confident that, together with the states and territories, we can continue to have world leading vaccination uptake and sensible health measures to ensure that we continue to effectively manage the COVID-19 pandemic.



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