We are now more than two years into the pandemic.
Despite some state health authorities suggesting everyone will contract COVID-19 and reports of people catching the virus twice, there’s still a lot of Australians who have never tested positive.
How many Australians have never caught COVID-19?
That’s impossible to know for sure, because some people may have had the virus but weren’t tested at the time, most likely because they didn’t show symptoms.
Without a positive test result, that sort of case would not be counted.
And now that rapid antigen tests (RATs) are being frequently used, official numbers rely on people self-reporting their positive results.
The data we have only includes confirmed cases reported to state and territory health authorities.
As of Monday, more than 7.3 million confirmed COVID-19 cases had been recorded in Australia throughout the entire pandemic.
That’s not a small number.
But when you consider that it includes repeat infections and compare it to Australia’s estimated population of more than 25.8 million people, it’s safe to say there are still quite a few Aussies who have not had the virus.
How can I avoid it now restrictions have been fully relaxed?
Mask mandates and even quarantine for close contacts have been done away with in most Australian jurisdictions.
But while we’re in a different phase of the pandemic, University of Sydney infection control expert Marilyn Cruickshank says the ways we can protect ourselves have not changed.
“It’s still the same methods we had previously – social distancing, wearing a mask and good hand hygiene — really are the ways that we can best avoid it,” Professor Cruickshank said.
What mask should I be wearing?
An N95 or P2 mask, if you can get them.
Professor Cruickshank said they are the top-tier masks for something as transmissible via airborne particles as the Omicron variant.
Then comes surgical masks and, at the bottom of the ranking, homemade cloth masks.
“Cloth is better than nothing,” she said.
Which places should I be avoiding?
The problem is that, because COVID-19 has become so widespread, places we can’t really avoid can also be quite risky.
Professor Cruickshank said it was highly likely that, if you do get COVID-19, you’ll catch it from someone you live with.
“The biggest problem is when household members become infected,” she said.
“You can’t be wearing masks and social distancing in your house.”
And it’s not like you can avoid your own home.
Professor Cruickshank said a COVID-19 case could isolate themselves once they test positive “but, beforehand, you don’t know” and that was when transmission could happen.
She also said social events such as weddings and birthday parties could be high-transmission events, even when people were careful, because people are often taking their masks off to eat and drink.
COVID-19 spreads most easily in poorly ventilated indoor spaces, so steer clear of these places where you can.
Are there subtler ways to be safe?
If your mates or family have already had COVID-19, they might be more relaxed about protection measures.
But there are still a few things you can do in a group setting to help reduce COVID risks for yourself and others.
Professor Cruickshank said heading outdoors was your best bet.
She suggested sitting outside when you go out to a cafe and hosting events in the backyard when people come over to your place.
Wear a mask if you can’t socially distance and think about airflow when you’re indoors.
Open the windows and doors to let as much fresh air in as possible, but consider how the air filters out.
If you’re running a wall unit air conditioner — for heating or cooling — the World Health Organization says to open the windows for a few minutes every hour because the unit will probably be just recirculating the air around.
The same goes for fans.
However, you can keep a room shut up with a central air conditioning system if it’s switched to a setting that introduces more outdoor air into the room.
Also, if you’re in a car, use the air conditioning setting that brings in outdoor air.
If I’ve dodged the virus so far, am I in the clear?
Possibly, but do not count on it.
“Theoretically, there could be people who won’t get it,” Professor Cruickshank said.
While there have been cases where people who have lived in the same homes as people with COVID-19 and didn’t contract the virus, the professor said it was likely that just came down to luck.
“That doesn’t mean you won’t get it,” she said.
And, if you’ve already had it, you could get it again.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 isn’t like chickenpox or the measles, where you get it once and you’re immune.
Professor Cruickshank said it was closer to the flu, where there’s a different strain every year.
“People have had COVID two or three times,” she said.
“If you’ve had Delta, you could get Omicron or the original Alpha and if any other strain comes along, you could get it again.”
If it’s likely I’ll get COVID-19, why bother protecting myself?
“The take-home message is we still don’t know what we don’t know,” Professor Cruickshank said.
She said that, while some people have mild cases, other people can get very sick from the virus.
“We’re seeing people who are at a higher risk of getting diabetes and we’re seeing people who have had heart attacks who have had COVID. Shane Warne was a good example of that,” she said.
And then there’s long COVID.
“People are feeling really tired and run down for a period of time,” Professor Cruickshank said.
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