October 1, 2022

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A simple message about Covid needs to be heard by Australians as the country braces itself for a huge surge in cases due to new variants.

Young Australians are being urged to hear a simple message about Covid as the country braces itself for a surge in cases driven by the emergence of new variants.

More than 40,000 Covid cases are now being reported daily across the country, with thousands in hospital and more than 100 people in intensive care. Australia’s Covid death toll has now passed 10,000 people.

Experts believe cases will rise as Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants spread.

It will be harder to stop these variants because a prior Covid infection or vaccinations are not as effective at preventing them from spreading compared to previous strains.

But there are some simple things people can do to protect themselves and their families.

“We need to get the message out, particularly to young people,” University of Sydney public health expert Professor Julie Leask told news.com.au.

“For a while again, they are just going to have to put masks back on because Covid is going to get bad again.”

The role of masks is seen as particularly important because the new subvariants are more resistant to vaccines.

In fact, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has noted that while vaccination will reduce hospitalisations, the impact will be limited thanks to the new subvariants’ ability to spread, so extra measures like the increased use of masks and antiviral treatments “will have the greatest impact against the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 surge in infections”.

People are already required to wear masks on public transport and in places like hospitals but it’s unlikely more mandates will be brought in, although chief health officers are discussing the possibility.

Prof Leask said she didn’t think there was the political appetite for more rules but this did not mean people shouldn’t take precautions.

NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said last week people should exercise common sense and wear a face mask in public indoor spaces, where physical distancing cannot be maintained.

“Unless we pull together as one again, this new wave will hit schools and businesses hard, just like BA. 1 did, which saw thousands of workers absent,” Dr Chant said.

“Face masks, hand hygiene, staying home when ill, testing yourself when symptoms present, physically distancing, all these measures are not new to us.”

Prof Leask said wearing a mask did not just protect the individual but also the person sitting next to them.

“That person could be looking after a spouse who is having chemo, you just don’t know, and popping a mask on could make quite a difference to the life sitting next to you.”

Authorities also recommend adults over the age of 16 years old get a third vaccine dose as it has been shown to increase the immune response to the new subvariants. Just 70 per cent of Aussies have got boosted so far.

A recent Australian study, which is still in pre-print, found a third vaccine dose provided 65 per cent greater protection against hospitalisation or death from Omicron than two vaccine doses.

Those who’ve had a Covid infection should also continue with their vaccinations, once three months had passed, as prior infection alone will not provide sufficient protection against severe disease.

Reinfections have been known to occur as early as one month after someone is first infected.

“Vaccination in addition to infection, as compared with prior infection alone, offers the best available protection against reinfection,” ATAGI states.

Dr Leask said research had shown one factor that could influence people to get vaccinated is knowing their friends or family members want them to.

“If someone hasn’t had a booster, remind them and encourage them to do it,” she said.

Last week ATAGI also announced those aged 30 to 49 years could receive a fourth vaccine dose if they wanted a winter booster, although it acknowledged the benefit for people in this age group was less certain than those who were older.

Prof Leask said people aged between 30 and 50 years old could get a fourth dose if they were worried about getting sick from Covid, but older age groups should definitely get a fourth shot.

“We are expecting a Covid surge in late July and early August, and the vaccines don’t protect as well against these new variants, so having a nice top-up in immunity will reduce the risk of severe disease, particularly for people aged 50 and over,” Prof Leask said.

Prof Leask said many people were sick of doing things to prevent Covid but it was important to maintain certain simple measures.

“Wear a mask, get your third dose and stay at home if you have got any symptoms,” she said.

“Young people in particular have had their lives very severely affected by the pandemic and it’s understandable they want to move on — but there’s just a few actions we can take that could make a big difference.”

Originally published as Aussies urged to wear masks to reduce winter Covid surge

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