Australia expands vaccine roll-out with Covid-19 wave due to peak in three weeks

Covid-19 has gradually faded into the background across much of Australia. PHOTO: AFP

SYDNEY - Until the start of this year, Australians had lived through almost two years of the Covid-19 pandemic without experiencing a serious nationwide outbreak. But this largely virus-free existence ended in January, when a major outbreak brought much of the country to a standstill as case numbers exceeded 100,000 a day.

Since then, Covid-19 has gradually faded into the background across much of Australia and restrictions have been continually eased.

But the authorities now warn that a new fast-rising outbreak is already under way and is yet to peak. Vaccine roll-outs are being expanded and there are growing calls for mandatory mask-wearing to be reimposed.

Nationally, daily case numbers and hospitalisations have been climbing steeply since late June. On Friday (July 8), Australia recorded 41,866 new cases, up from 34,927 the previous Friday.

There were 4,024 Covid-19 patients in hospital on Sunday, a figure that is approaching the peak of 5,227 in January. As of Sunday, Australia has logged 10,302 Covid-19-related deaths.

In New South Wales, the most populous state, the government last week said the emerging wave of cases could be as severe as the outbreak in January. The wave is expected to peak in late July or early August.

The state's Chief Health Officer, Dr Kerry Chant, urged people to again start wearing masks in public places. Compulsory mask-wearing has been abandoned in the state, except for places such as hospitals and public transport, though commuters have increasingly been ignoring the rule.

"I think we have to create an environment where everyone says, 'Wearing a mask is an OK thing to do and it's reasonable to do it now', because we are going to see another wave," Dr Chant said.

"Unless we pull together as one again, this new wave will hit schools and businesses hard, just like (the BA.1 Omicron strain) did, which saw thousands of workers absent."

The rise in cases has prompted the federal government to accelerate its vaccine roll-out. From Monday, people aged over 30 will be offered a fourth shot and those over 50 will be "recommended" to receive it.

Previously, only people over 65 could have the fourth shot.

The changes will allow an additional 7.4 million Australians - from a total population of 25.4 million - to have a fourth shot.

The government's health advisory body notes that fourth doses are important but will have less impact on fighting the outbreak than wearing masks and increasing the use of antiviral treatment in Covid-19 patients.

So far, 95 per cent of Australians aged 12 and above have had two vaccine shots and 62 per cent have had booster shots.

Despite the rising case numbers, states in Australia have been reluctant to reimpose masks, lockdowns or work-from-home orders. Instead, measures continue to be rolled back.

The federal government this week removed the requirement that foreign travellers entering Australia must prove they have been vaccinated. Last month, the authorities dropped the requirement to wear masks in airports. Passengers on incoming flights will still need to wear masks.

The Australian Medical Association last week said politicians should not rule out the reintroduction of mask mandates.

But the Federal Health Minister, Mr Mark Butler, said people should be allowed to make their own choices about masks and social distancing measures.

"We are deep into the third year of the pandemic and we need to make sure that people feel they are able to take control of their own circumstances," he told ABC News.

Experts said the surge in cases in Australia was due to the spread of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron strains, which are more infectious and more able to evade immunity than previous variants.

"Even with the current levels of immunity, we are seeing an exponential growth in case numbers," Professor Adrian Esterman, a public health expert at the University of South Australia, wrote last week on The Conversation website.

"This will inevitably lead to an increase in hospitalisation and deaths."

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