New South Wales daily cases have likely exceeded 25,000 a day, a month earlier than the government was predicting a fortnight ago, an acceleration likely to bring forward the strains on the health system, experts say.
The NSW government reported 21,151 new cases in the 24 hours to 8pm on Thursday, almost a 90% jump on the previous day’s tally. Kerry Chant, the state’s chief health officer, said in a video briefing it’s “likely” the increase is higher than reported.
Michael Lydeamore, an infectious disease modeller at Monash University said tests were probably catching about 80% of actual cases, meaning NSW will already be at the 25,000 cases a day rate flagged by health minister Brad Hazzard on 15 December.
Lydeamore said it remains unclear how much the surge is a result of the catch-up of a testing system that itself has been under strain with people who have been symptomatic for a couple of days before Christmas only coming for checks now, or a wider spread of the infection. “If it’s the former that’s better news,” he said.
On Friday the prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced a further change to the testing rules for confirmed Covid cases.
“Further to national cabinet on 30 December 2021, and following further consultation with the chief medical officer and chief health officers, leaders have also agreed to remove the requirement for a day six RAT for confirmed cases in isolation,” Morrison said in a statement on Friday.
“If confirmed cases remain symptomatic, they should remain in isolation. Anyone with symptoms will continue to seek a PCR test.”
The change appears to pave the way for confirmed cases to leave isolation on the seventh day without a test, so long as they do not have symptoms.
Queensland reported a 40% rise in new cases to 3,118, while Victoria’s increase was about 15% to 5,919.
With Melbourne’s temperatures already at 35C just after noon and on track for 38C with similar conditions forecast for New Year’s Day, it is likely many people will postpone testing to avoid waiting in the heat.
Still, given the highly contagious nature of the Omicron Covid strain, Lydeamore said he was “pretty sure [Victoria] will end up in exactly the same place in a few weeks time” as NSW.
NSW Health corrected its hospitalisation tally to 832, or 15% higher than a day earlier, with 69 patients requiring intensive care. Six people died in NSW from Covid in the 24 hours, all aged between their 60s and 90s.
Lydeamore predicted hospitals would start to toughen standards so that fewer less seriously ill patients get admitted and speed up discharges to create capacity for the coming increase of those needing care. “Certainly the NSW system is going to be quite stretched over the next period,” he said.
Those stresses are likely even with the emergence of some good news overnight from research in South Africa showing Omicron was between 50 and 80% less severe than the Delta Covid variant, Lydeamore said.
“That is obviously really good news,” he said. “The question then is how much transmission we’ve got, and will it be enough to stop the system falling over? It’s going to be tight, I think.”
Gerard Hayes, NSW state secretary of the Health Services Union, said the system was now operating like a “winter bed strategy” for flu.
“It’s still early to tell but we’re not dealing with a fresh workforce,” Hayes said. “We’re dealing with a tired workforce and a workforce with very little redundancy attached to it.”
The likely surge in patients will mean that hospital staff will need extra help, although so far there seems to be little planning for that, he said.
Hayes said the ambulance service in the state had recently put on 200 university students because there was no slack in the system.
“They are overwhelmed and they can’t necessarily provide service,” he said. “So I think the next six months is going to consistently see this.”
“Governments of all persuasions have been cutting back on health consistently, and making it sort of virtually a just in time program,” Hayes said.
Lydeamore said contact tracing is now of little use, with as many as 200,000 new contacts likely a day at current infection rates. Guardian Australia earlier this week reported on the scaling back of tracing.
“The horse has probably bolted a week ago and we’ve only just looked in the stable,” he said.
Even so, there are still ways to moderate the pace of spread of the infection, such as wearing a mask and limiting density of gatherings and the number of new interactions.
“If I interact with the same group of 10 people every day, that’s far less risky from a transmission point of view than interacting with a different group of two for five days,” Lydeamore said.
“So it’s kind of like that bubble concept that we had a long time ago.”