Winter surge, risks & why we need the Covid conversation going

By Indira Laisram
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Prof Benjamin Cowie, Acting Chief Health Officer, Victoria

Covid’s winter surge in Victoria is alarming. The numbers are telling. Rising hospitalisations. Double digit deaths. And top pandemic advisers are warning that the winter wave of Omicron could be the worst COVID-19 outbreak Australia has ever seen.

Over the course of the last few months, ‘Stay Well This Winter’ has been the government’s strong messaging. Victoria is having its first flu season since 2019 and, at, the same time, a gradual increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the community especially in the past few weeks.

It is time to get the conversation going again and refocus on this virus that is, according to experts, rapidly changing genetically via mutations causing reinfections “not necessarily milder than the initial infection”.

Why the significant increase in transmissions

The general view of life back to pre-pandemic days seems far-fetched. The situation now is different with Omicron and, Victoria, according to news reports is facing rising hospitalisations due to the Ba4 and BA5 wave. “Over the past two weeks, there has been a significant increase in the COVID-19 transmission in the community,” warns Prof Benjamin Cowie, Acting Chief Health Officer, Victoria.

BA4 and BA5 are new Covid strains driving the country’s third Omicron wave. The reason that they expand in the community is because they are more infectious than the B2 subvariant. They are able to escape from the immunity that is present in the community. That means whether you have had a previous infection or have had vaccination, as is the case with most people now, BA4 and BA5 can still infect anyone.

That is why hospitalisations in Victoria have gone up by 30 per cent in the past two weeks. This is the same pattern in New South Wales (NSW), Queensland, South Australia, and other jurisdictions. Prof Cowie makes a comparison between NSW and Queensland. In NSW, the number of people in hospital has increased by 50 per cent over the course of June. In Queensland, the number of people in hospital has more than doubled, more than Victoria even though the latter has a significantly larger population.

Victoria is starting to move up and is going to peak in mid to late August, says Prof Cowie. “We are going to have hundreds of people more in hospital than we do right now with those who are disadvantaged, old or unwell at greater risk.”

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So, does this means vaccines don’t work?

According to Prof Cowie, “What this means is we need to have as up-to-date vaccination as we can possibly get to prevent severe illness and to prevent ending up in hospital.”

As with other vaccines, efficacy declines over time. That is why we need a flu shot every year. COVID-19 is no different, says Prof Cowie. But here’s the reality and the real priority. About a third of Victorians who are eligible for their third dose of vaccine haven’t had it yet. And those eligible (around 45 per cent) for their fourth dose—over 65 and with a range of medical problems—have not had that fourth dose.

Prof Cowie cites information from the United States that shows a fourth dose reduces your risk of dying from COVID-19, fourfold compared to someone who has had three does. “This is not a trial or study but real-world information coming out from the US for April this year,” he avers, adding, “Third and fourth doses save lives, prevent from people ending up in hospital and protect those precious resources we have in our hospital system to look after not just Covid patients, but all other health priorities we have got.”

What of oral antivirals?

Antiviral tablets have really changed the way we can approach Covid-19, says Prof Cowie. These drugs are oral tablets available at the pharmacies, but you need a doctor’s script. They are also available on the Pharmaceutical Benefit Scheme (PBS), they cost just the same as any other medication you get from the pharmacy. And if you are on a health care card, it brings the price down to the usual rate that you pay for any other medicines. Also, pharmacies can deliver them to you if you are in isolation.

Oral antivirals can reduce your risk of ending up in hospital if you are someone at higher risk with severe illness, or, say, someone with multiple medical conditions or has weakened immune system, explains Prof Cowie.

Search ‘eligibility oral COVID-19 treatments’ on government health department website.

But with many people not having ready access to GPs, making an early appointment with one and having ‘a COVID-19 plan’ is advised to get the prescription handy. Other alternate route is exploring the Community Health Centres and the GP Respiratory Clinic Network in Victoria, funded by the Commonwealth and the state. They can prescribe these drugs for people and also do COVID -19 tests.

Prof Cowie says, “The strong feedback from people is that they feel a lot better very quickly. And we know they reduce your chance of ending up in hospital very effectively.”

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Community engagement, local public health units

In a bid to move the focus of public health to local health, Victoria has established nine Local Public Health Units (LPHUs), three in Melbourne and six in regional Victoria. Apart from the increasing responsibility of responding to COVID-19 outbreaks and coordinating vaccination services, the LPHUs aim to improve engagement with local communities across the board.

Ways to protect the community

The strong messaging from experts and the government remains:

  • wear masks
  • ensure airflow when gathering indoors
  • stay home if unwell
  • take a RAT test if unwell, PCR if high risk
  • consult doctor immediately if positive and high risk
  • due for a third or fourth dose? get it now!

The fact remains, everyone is bored of talking about masks, social distancing, etc. But it is time to turn that around and talk more once again about wearing masks where we need to, about looking after each other in those ways we learned really work, sums up Prof Cowie.

This wave too shall pass, but it is up to us how well we ride the wave together!


  • More about Covid booster vaccine advice. Click here.
  • Where to get a PCR Test for COVID-19. Click here.
  • GP Respiratory Clinics (to test for COVID-19 and other respiratory conditions) can be found here.  They are free for everyone (babies, children and adults), with or without a Medicare card. Click here.
  • Regular CHO updates. Click here.

The Indian Sun acknowledges the support of the Victorian Government.


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