State health authorities are reintroducing masks and other measures as an eighth COVID-19 wave moves across Australia.
Cases of the virus are up nearly 25 per cent across the country in recent weeks, and much more in some states.
In Queensland – where 221 infected people, mostly over the age of 65, are in hospital and two are in intensive care – hospitals and health services have the option to make masks mandatory.
Australian Medical Association Queensland president Maria Boulton has urged people to wear masks in public places such as large crowds, planes and medical settings, to slow the spread of the virus.
“A mask mandate would be the decision of the CHO, but hospitalisations are rising and the health workforce is stretched to breaking point and cannot cope with another overload of patients over the holidays,” she told The Courier Mail.
In an update later on Wednesday, Queensland CHO Dr John Gerrard confirmed the hospital numbers, which he said were three times the average before the latest wave took hold.
He said the current wave was made up mostly of infections of Omicron variants, including the latest – XCH. So far there have been no deaths, and Gerrard said most patients were over-65s who had not had a booster COVID vaccine this year.
“I am making no general recommendation about mask -wearing in public or in healthcare facilities. That would be disproportionate to the level of risk,” he said.
Gerrard said COVID waves were getting less severe.
“COVID-19 is not going away. It’s now one of a number of respiratory viruses that we’re going to have to deal with in an ongoing fashion, including influenza,” he said.
“The public health emergency declared by the World Health Organisation ended on May the fifth of this year. So the public health emergency is long over.
“The approach to any public health concern like this must be consistent with the risk … It is important that I do not overstate the risk.”
Earlier State Health Minister Shannon Fentiman said vaccination remained the best protection against the virus, particularly for those over 65.
“The rise in COVID hospitalisations over recent weeks is a timely reminder for all of us to remain up to date with our boosters,” she said.
South of the border, NSW Health is also encouraging the return of some early pandemic habits with more than 1600 cases active statewide.
“Consider wearing a mask in crowded indoor areas and be kind to people who choose to wear a mask,” it said on X, formerly Twitter.
Residents were also encouraged people to meet outdoors, wash hands regularly, and stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations. The authority urged anyone feeling unwell to stay at home.
In Victoria, health officials said the last Friday the number of people in hospital with the virus was at its highest daily average – 321 – since June. Victoria has nearly 1400 active infections.
Some Melbourne hospitals reinstated mask mandates for visitors earlier this month.
In South Australia, there has been a nearly 50 per cent jump in infections in a week, with 2493 cases recorded as of Friday compared to 1691 the week before.
That compares to 546 cases in the final week of August.
“Last Friday it was 50 per cent higher than the previous week,” chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier said.
Hospitalisations are steady, with an average of 30 people a week admitted with COVID-19.
Spurrier said on Tuesday that South Australians had the tools to reduce the effect of the current wave, which include mask-wearing and avoiding contact with vulnerable people if infected.
As cases climb, the Northern Adelaide Local Health Network, which includes the Lyell McEwin and Modbury Hospitals, has again made masks mandatory for staff and visitors.
Earlier this week, Spurrier said only half of aged-care residents across Australia had received a second COVID booster this year. She urged people with elderly relatives to keep them up to date given they are more susceptible to the virus.
The ABC reported on Wednesday that an Alice Springs aged-care facility was in lockdown because of a COVID outbreak that had infected more than a third of its residents.
The Old Timers Village had 24 cases among residents and four infections among staff, as of Wednesday morning. The home has 68 beds and is managed by Australian Regional and Remote Community Services.
Australian Medical Association SA branch president John Williams said the community had the tools to deal with a rise in infection.
“What has been said is that possibly there will be a peak around Christmas time,” he told ABC Radio.
“We certainly hope that isn’t the case, but it is something we have to be aware of in the community.”