Reducing COVID spread by 20 per cent could save thousands

COVID deaths are happening at their highest rate since the pandemic began, but research shows even a modest reduction in transmission can save thousands of lives.

It may feel like the COVID nightmare of the past two years is over, with virtually all restrictions now removed across Australia, but health authorities are warning circulation of the virus is reaching new heights.

Australia’s daily COVID case numbers are now the highest in the world per capita and our death rate is also among the highest, especially in people aged 70 and over. COVID deaths so far this year are more than double those in 2020 and 2021 combined.

It doesn’t look like slowing either, with governments around the nation reluctant to reintroduce any lockdown restrictions or even mask mandates.

Read: Are rapid antigen tests effective against new COVID strains?

But new modelling from the Burnet Institute has shown reducing transmission levels by just 20 per cent could prevent around five million COVID cases and save up to 2000 lives – this year alone.

The institute says we’re experiencing such a high death rate mainly because we’re letting the virus run rampant, virtually unrestricted, and it’s older Australians who are paying the price.

“There are still so many deaths because we have let the virus run. By scaling back public health measures and delivering an ‘it’s over’ message, we have allowed almost unfettered transmission,” the study says.

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“This relaxed policy stance – combined with emerging variants (three new Omicron strains have entered Australia), winter encouraging more time indoors, and waning immunity – suggest high caseloads will continue for some time yet.”

Around 70 per cent of COVID deaths occur in those who have a chronic medical condition, and about 85 per cent of Australians aged over 65 are living with a chronic condition.

While governments may be reticent to reintroduce restrictions on movement and activity, experts say mask rules should be reinstated, particularly in indoor settings.

Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Dr Omar Khorshid told WAtoday that lifting mask mandates had placed an enormous strain on the public hospital system.

Read: Severe COVID is equivalent to 20 years of ageing, study finds

“[Masks] did seem to be keeping a lid on the spread of the virus through the community, and it was keeping those numbers at a pretty stable level where the health system could be expected to cope,” he said.

“Now we’ve seen those numbers explode.

“If we see numbers like we’ve seen in the last week for the next four, six weeks, then we’re going to have a health system that cannot cope and people with other medical conditions getting substandard medical care because we just can’t get the workers into the workplace where they’re needed.”

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