Omicron now 90 per cent of cases in Australian state, says health chief

Cars lining up for Covid-19 tests at a drive-through site in Brisbane, Australia, on Jan 7, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Australia's Covid-19 case numbers continue to surge but deaths and hospitalisation rates are gaining more slowly than overall infections, as Omicron becomes the dominant variant.

Omicron represents about 90 per cent of cases in New South Wales state, Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant told reporters on Wednesday (Jan 12), the remainder being Delta variant. Omicron is now responsible for about 67 per cent of Covid-19 cases in intensive care units across the state, she said.

On Tuesday, there were 90,847 new cases reported in Australia, according to covidlive.com.au, though the real number in the community could be much higher owing to strain on the testing system.

That was 33 times higher than the 2,752 cases reported at the peak of the Delta wave on Oct 14 last year.

Still, there were 27 deaths reported on Tuesday, the same number as the deadliest day of the Delta wave on Oct 28 last year, according to covidlive.com.au. And there were 3,869 people hospitalised, compared with 1,551 on Sept 28, the highest recording during the Delta surge.

Australia's two most populous states reported 21 deaths each on Wednesday, though seven of the deaths reported in New South Wales were historic. The country has reported 2,458 deaths overall during the pandemic.

There are 2,242 Covid-19 cases in New South Wales hospitals, a 50 per cent increase from a week ago, with 175 in intensive care, the government said on Wednesday.

More than half of those under intensive care are unvaccinated, Premier Dominic Perrottet said. The state has a 94 per cent vaccination rate for people aged 16 and over, with more than 20 per cent of eligible people also having received a booster shot.

Vaccination is "key over this period of time in keeping you and your friends and your family safe", Mr Perrottet said. "It is very clear on those numbers. They do not lie."

Victoria state has 946 hospitalised, a 60 per cent rise in the past week, with 112 under intensive care. The state's acting health minister announced a recruitment drive aimed at health students, retired nurses and other people with medical experience to bulk up staff numbers at the state's vaccination clinics ahead of an expected surge in demand for booster shots as more Victorians reach the four-month eligibility mark for the third dose.

Surging Omicron infections have also led to staff shortages at businesses, which have disrupted supply chains and hampered the economy's recovery.

Australian businesses are grappling with the growing toll of workers out sick or ordered to isolate for being close contacts. But the virus is also scaring customers away from airlines, entertainment and hospitality sectors, already battered by several lockdowns over the past two years.

"Essentially (small businesses) are in a lockdown...there is little support out there to help them keep their doors open," Ms Alexi Boyd, head of the Council of Small Business Organisations, told broadcaster ABC on Wednesday.

Labour shortages and caution about being in public places have stifled household spending, financial services firm ANZ said in a research note, with spending in early January resembling lockdown conditions in Sydney and Melbourne, Australia's largest cities.

Before the Omicron outbreak erupted during the Christmas period, the economy had been making a surprisingly strong recovery. In November, employment levels rose far faster than expected as coronavirus lockdowns were lifted, and retail sales also surged for a second consecutive month.

Amid pressure on supply chains, supermarket chain Coles Group reintroduced purchase limits on toilet paper, some meat products and medicines.

Australia is shifting away from PCR testing in favour of at-home rapid antigen kits after skyrocketing case numbers overwhelmed testing facilities. New South Wales state on Wednesday introduced mandatory reporting of positive rapid antigen tests through an app, bringing it in line with most other states.

State and territory leaders will meet on Thursday to discuss how best to manage the return of students to school classrooms within weeks, after the summer holiday break.

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