With lockdowns no longer in place in Australia and daily press conferences all but forgotten, COVID-19 almost feels like a thing of the past.
But coronavirus has been spreading in “every corner” of the country – and Australia is close to recording 10,000 COVID-19 deaths.
More than 7400 of those were recorded this year alone – more than three times the combined death toll of 2020 and 2021.
Watch the latest News on Channel 7 or stream for free on 7plus >>
Australia’s seven-day rolling average of cases sits at about 30,000 per day – well above what the US, UK and South Korea are recording per capita.
On the back of those figures, conservative commentators in the US have labelled Australia’s COVID-zero approach a “complete flop”.
Deakin University chair of epidemiology Professor Catherine Bennett says it’s important we think about the bigger picture of how Australia stacks up, but it’s also important that Australians “don’t think it’s over”.
“That’s not actually the message anyone is giving … we’re trying to find a way to live with the virus while keeping the impact on individual health and our collective health as controlled and managed as we can,” she told 7NEWS.com.au.
A look at cases
Australia’s current seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 cases sits at approximately 1100 cases per million people. It’s just above Singapore and New Zealand, but well above the US’s approximate 320 cases per million, the UK at 275 and Japan at 120.
However, it is important to note that in cumulative terms we’re still well behind.
Australia has recorded more than 310,000 cases per million people – that’s lower than the UK, South Korea and the European Union.
Bennett said three things are working together to keep Australia’s case numbers “frustratingly” high – reinfection, waning vaccine coverage, and “new variants are that bit more transmissible”.
Just this month, Victoria’s Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said an increase in the prevalence of BA.4/BA.5 was “likely to result in an increase in cases, including reinfections and hospital admissions”.
“This is because the strain has a greater ability than BA.2 to evade immunity provided by vaccination and earlier COVID-19 infection,” he said.
In previous waves, we’ve seen an eventual decline in case numbers, but Bennett says a steady succession of these subvariants has prevented that.
“Usually, you reach a point where you start to see the waves decline and we saw that with the first wave of Omicron,” she said.
“The numbers have come down, but that’s probably more about the reporting patterns than it is about the case numbers.”
Concerns about the accuracy of reported cases, particularly since the introduction of self-reported RAT tests, were backed up by a national antibody study from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance and UNSW Sydney’s Kirby Institute.
The study, conducted from late February to early March during the peak of the Omicron wave, found the number of reported cases only represented half the infections in the community.
“So, if we have 30,000 new cases reported on average at the moment in Australia, it’s probably 60,000 new infections across the country, if not a bit more than that,” Bennett said.
The problem isn’t isolated to Australia. In April, the US Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated only 7 per cent of cases in the US were being detected, meaning case rates were actually 14.5 times higher than officially reported.
Australia’s current seven-day rolling average of COVID-19 deaths sits about 1.7 deaths per million people – again, well above the US on 1.1 per million, Canada on 0.45 and Japan on 0.1.
But a look at cumulative deaths shows, since the beginning of the pandemic, Australia has recorded just less than 380 deaths per million people, compared with more than 3000 per million in America, and more than 2600 in the UK.
“If you look at it as a cumulative graph, we’re a long way behind,” Bennett said.
She said an increase in deaths from mid-May could be explained by the spread of BA.5 in Victoria.
“It might be that BA.5 has hit Victoria earlier and we’re seeing the rise here that is now starting to maybe appear in NSW, so we should be prepared,” she said.
“That’s all the more reason to get the message out there about boosters and antivirals.”
About 70.4 per cent of the eligible population has received their booster dose.
Australia’s COVID-zero approach also had a more widespread impact on deaths. In 2020, the ABS noted a reduction in the overall mortality rate, as well as a 24 per cent decrease in respiratory disease fatalities.
With fewer deaths during the peak of the pandemic, Bennett says it left Australia with a larger vulnerable elderly population on the other side.
“If we didn’t have COVID, we didn’t have lockdowns and all the protection of our elderly, we would have had more of our elderly people pass away in 2020 and 2021 than we actually did,” she said.
“So that does mean there are a few people who have now lived a couple of years longer who now are more vulnerable.”
Bennett said waiting for the vaccine rollout before opening up had also led to a “real change” in current COVID-19 fatalities.
“We’ve seen a real change from Delta when we saw deaths across all age groups while, with Omicron, it is much more concentrated in people who are … 60 and over, but the biggest number by far is 80 and over,” she said.
Was it worth it?
Even with the benefit of hindsight, Bennett says it is generally accepted that Australia’s COVID-zero approach – lockdowns, border closures and all – was “the right way to start out”.
But it doesn’t mean it was perfect.
“Where we got to in 2020 in Victoria, versus how NSW handled it, is something we need to look at,” she said.
“I think we worked so hard to be at zero and stay at zero for a very long time in Victoria, that probably cost us the ability to keep infection rates down in 2021 with Delta because people were so worn out, they didn’t comply quite as well with the restrictions.”
She said the measures “came with a cost”, not just to the effectiveness of the next lockdown but to education, businesses, and a “whole range of other things”.
Overall, she said “strong suppression” until a vaccine was available was “the right thing to do”.
“We saw more deaths than anyone wants to see but, compared with what it could have been (without lockdowns or control measures), particularly winter of 2021, it would have been a very different story.”
What can we do now?
Despite the data and the onset of winter, vaccine and mask mandates are being eased in some parts of the country.
Several states have started unwinding restrictions including allowing unvaccinated school staff back to work, lifting bans on unvaccinated visitors at nursing homes or relaxing mask requirements at airports.
Bennett said the focus should now be on the “next generation” of vaccines.
Moderna has already started to develop a bivalent booster that has been shown to elicit “potent” immune responses against the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5.
“Another booster might help keep (us) that bit safer and our workplaces safer and our hospitals safer and if we can bring that infection number down, we’ll see fewer people in hospital and we could go back to days when, Australia-wide, we don’t have deaths,” Bennett said.
“But in the meantime, preventing infection where we can, making sure people who get infected are getting the best treatment early, even if our infection rates stay high for a while over winter, it could still bring down our number of deaths.”
Bennett said the basic precautions such as wearing a mask around other people, keeping your distance and using hand hygiene can all make a difference in curbing infections.
“It’s not about lockdowns and things any more. You can’t contain Omicron that way, it’s in every corner of Australia, but it means all those basic precautions we’ve talked about, the things that we know work and we’ve encouraged through rules in the past.
“Now we don’t have rules in place, but it doesn’t make them any less important … it’s all about trying to buy time until we get to those next-generation vaccines.”
This content was originally published here.