/Australia’s COVID-19 and flu cases are on the rise — this is what’s driving them – ABC News

Australia’s COVID-19 and flu cases are on the rise — this is what’s driving them – ABC News

The message is clear: the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over, and Australians should brace themself for a winter of rising coronavirus infections, and other lurgies too.

Key points:

Experts are warning new COVID variants, coupled with low influenza immunity in the community, will likely put pressure on Australia’s hospitals in coming weeks.

COVID case numbers have been falling across Australia since mid-April, however, last week, infections began rising in many states.

The newest Omicron variants — BA.4 and BA.5 — are increasing in NSW, representing 31 per cent of specimens in the week ending June 18, up from 23 per cent the week before.

The Omicron sub-variant BA.5 is “stickier” than its predecessor, because of differences in its spike glycoprotein, which influences how the virus engages with cells. 

The NSW Health weekly surveillance report noted the BA.4 and BA.5 variants are expected to become the dominant strains in the state and will cause an increase in infections in the next few weeks.

Jacqui Driver, from Rozelle in Sydney’s inner-west, has had COVID-19 twice — most recently two weeks ago.

She also lives with rheumatoid arthritis.

The medication she uses to manage that condition reduces her white-blood-cell count, meaning she is more susceptible to severe illness and eligible to take a COVID anti-viral medication.

“If I do get sick, I go downhill very quickly,” she said.

“I was pretty concerned when I caught COVID …  it was two days later before I started the medication, but I went from running really high temperatures and having really awful flu symptoms, outrageously sore throat, struggling to get an out of bed, to within 24 hours, feeling quite amazing.”

While Ms Driver doesn’t know what variant she was infected with most recently, one thing is clear: the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron strains are not just active in NSW.

The variants have also been detected in wastewater in Victoria and in South Australia, where Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier gave a renewed warning about the danger of complacency this week.

Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, said the BA.4 and BA.5 variants were pushing up case numbers.

“The concern with BA.5 is that we might actually see more people who are particularly unwell,” she said.

“It’s been described by biologists as a sticky variant.

“It actually binds to some of the proteins in our lung linings more effectively than previous sub-variants of Omicron.”

The number of COVID patients in Australian hospitals peaked at about 3,250 in late April, however, they’ve been rising again this week.

Each state uses different methods to assess the number of COVID patients in hospital, making cross-state comparisons difficult.

However, the data shows that in NSW and Queensland in particular, hospitalisations have increased.

The number of COVID deaths in Australia also going up.

Since mid-May, the number of daily deaths from COVID have averaged between 40 and 45, but in the past week have started trending up slightly to around 50 per day nationally.

Case numbers could also be rising because a previous COVID infection did not protect against the new variants, Professor Bennett said.

Jacqui Driver caught COVID twice ABC News_Fletcher Yeung2

After contracting COVID for a second time, Ms Driver was placed in a virtual hospital, where a machine was delivered to her home to measure her oxygen levels.

“The hospital staff keep an eye on you and make sure that you’re breathing and that you’re well and you feel really cared for,” she said.

“They literally are there 24 hours a day.”

Little protection against flu 

Increasing COVID-19 transmission isn’t the only issue hanging over Australia’s hospitals this winter. 

Professor Bennett warned the community had little natural protection against influenza this year — a by-product of social-distancing restrictions imposed on people in 2020 and 2021.

“You might find that in areas where you have high [influenza] vaccine uptake it’s helping manage it, but really that reduced immunity across the population does put us more at risk, and the season started early,” she said.

All states are seeing a rise in respiratory illnesses, in presentations to emergency departments and in hospitalisation. This is due, in part, to increased COVID-19 PCR testing, which also flags instances of influenza.

The last non-pandemic flu season, in 2019, saw Australia record more than 287,700 cases.

In the first six months of this year, the country has already recorded more than half that total (144,500).

So far this year, there have been almost 9,400 presentations to hospital emergency departments with influenza-like illness in NSW, of which more than 1,300 have been admitted.

NSW Health is expecting a surge in flu activity right through winter, urging residents to get vaccinated before the peak hits.

But it’s not just the country’s most populous state seeing more cases.

Tasmania has already surpassed its 2019 rate of flu by 24 cases and the Northern Territory has doubled its pre-COVID records, from 1,878 cases in 2019 to 3,806 in the 12 months to last week. 

Australia Medical Association President Chris Moy said that spike could mean compounding pressures on health services nationwide if more people begin presenting to hospitals.

“We have had a very early and high peak and flu,” Dr Moy said.

“We had a really bad not only numbers but also translation, hospital cases of flu, [and that could mean] we would actually be in a complete disaster at the moment and we might still be in that people don’t really start to refocus … and get the COVID vaccine shots and try to stay out of hospital if they possibly can.” 

Falling rates of PCR testing and use of rapid antigen tests have meant that the true incidence of COVID is under-estimated.

A study from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance measuring COVID antibodies in blood donors showed that the number of people infected with COVID in the first two months of the year was at least double what was officially reported.

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