22 January 2024

Concerns for COVID-19 community transmission spike as kids head back to the classroom

| Claire Fenwicke
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Sir Robert Menzies statue wearing a mask

COVID-Smart behaviours, such as wearing a mask if unwell, are being promoted as transmission concerns rise. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The ACT has largely avoided the ‘Christmas COVID wave’, but that could change with kids about to go back to school.

Population Health Minister Emma Davidson has urged Canberrans to stay vigilant and COVID Smart as case numbers and hospitalisations due to the virus rise across the country.

“Community transmission of COVID-19 is here to stay, and we expect to see rises and falls in case numbers as Canberrans return to school and work due to emerging variants, waning immunity and social behaviour,” she said.

“While the cases of COVID-19 in the ACT have been decreasing since a peak of cases in mid-November, we have seen increases in parts of the country.”

NSW Health has reported that, as of the fortnight ending 13 January, COVID-19 activity “persists at high levels”, with sewage data indicating transmission is currently higher than the 2023 winter peak. (Sewage is tested from four sites in Greater Sydney and Newcastle.)

Looking at Canberra’s numbers since 1 December 2023, the Territory peaked in the week 8 to 14 December when 423 cases were reported.

Reporting changes for the Territory commenced on 22 December when a greater focus was placed on severe cases and hospital admissions.

Rapid antigen tests (RATs) can no longer be reported to ACT Health and pathology referral forms are needed if you want a PCR test. This coincides with a dramatic drop in reported cases – only 74 cases were recorded between 22 and 28 December. However, since that date, hospitalisations have trended slightly upwards.

Cases in other jurisdictions also show a continued increase in the detection of the JN.1 variant of COVID-19, which appears to be more transmissible or better at evading our immune systems.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted there’s no evidence at this stage to suggest JN.1 poses an increased risk to public health compared to other currently circulating variants.

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The detailed weekly epidemiology update for COVID-19, influenza and RSV is no longer available, replaced by a new weekly COVID-19 dashboard with key COVID-19 statistics.

In the ACT in the reporting period from 12 to 18 January, 23 active COVID cases were in hospital. (It’s worth noting this doesn’t mean these people are being treated in hospital solely for COVID.)

Despite these changes, Ms Davidson said that some people in the community are still more affected by the virus than others, so practising COVID-Smart behaviours was still necessary.

“Viruses can cause complications for anyone. If you are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses, speak to your regular healthcare provider about what to do if you become unwell, including how to access testing and treatments,” she said.

COVID-Smart behaviours reduce the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19 and other infectious respiratory viruses, like influenza.

These behaviours include:

  • Staying up to date with vaccinations. Vaccination remains the best protection from serious illness and hospitalisation.
  • Staying home if you’re unwell. You can use a RAT for COVID-19. Even if the test is negative, remain at home until you feel better.
  • Wearing a mask when entering public indoor settings or where it is difficult to maintain physical distancing.
  • Practising good hand hygiene.

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Even though RATs are no longer reportable, free tests can be collected from Libraries ACT locations and Access Canberra service centres (after a transaction) until the end of January.

They’re also available at Canberra Health Services facilities – including hospitals, walk-in centres and health centres – where visitors are encouraged to do a RAT before entering.

Canberrans have been encouraged to pick up the free RATs before the program ends and before they become unwell.

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