What to expect when flu meets COVID this year

As the weather cools, what does Australia face for COVID-19 this winter?

Health authorities are dealing with the continuing challenges of new COVID variants, including the most recent BA.2 and the likelihood of a flu outbreak after two years of isolation.

The likelihood of the BA.2 variant of Omicron becoming dominant seems inescapable, with a Danish study finding it is “inherently more transmissible than BA.1”.

“If you have been exposed to Omicron BA.2 in your household, you have 39 per cent probability of being infected within seven days,” says lead study author Frederick Plesner.

“If you have instead been exposed to BA.1, the probability is 29 per cent.”

Read: Why do some people not catch COVID?

Modelling by the University of NSW school of population forecasts between 20,000 and 30,000 daily infections a day in NSW in early to mid-April. Other states are likely to follow a similar trajectory.

The modelling predicts a surge of cases mid-autumn and in early winter, but say it’s unlikely to be as disruptive as the first Omicron wave. The World Health Organization attributes this to high vaccination rates and previous Omicron infections, which are a good defence against BA.2.

“Initial data … suggests that infection with BA.1 provides strong protection against reinfection with BA.2,” it says.

Will this surge cross over with the winter flu season? Probably.

Read: Mild COVID can cause brain shrinkage

Australia largely missed the usual flu waves in 2020 and 2021 due to lockdowns and hygiene measures put in place to fight COVID but, as the country opens up, a rise in flu infections is unavoidable.

Tourists and returning residents must observe COVID protocols but they don’t have to be tested for the flu virus.

Before COVID, Australia faced one of its most deadly flu years on record with an estimated 953 deaths in 2019. In comparison, in the year to 29 August 2021, there were no deaths. 

Chief medical officer Paul Kelly says a flu outbreak is inevitable.

“With open borders and a relatively open society, we expect COVID will continue to be circulating and flu almost certainly will be here in winter as it normally is,” he says.

Prof. Kelly says Australia has prepurchased a “very large” number of vaccines for the flu season and, according to the Australian government Department of Health, the COVID and flu vaccines can be administered on the same day.

Deputy chief medical officer Sonya Bennett says researchers are investigating a single COVID-flu shot.

Read: Older Australians’ fears about COVID ‘perfectly reasonable’

“It might not be in place at the beginning of winter, but certainly we would be seeing multiplex testing in hospitals for those at risk by mid-winter,” she told the ABC.

Flu vaccines are free for anyone aged 65 or older will be available from late March.

In anticipation of a surge in flu and COVID cases, the federal government this month pledged $2.1 billion to “support and protect” Australians against COVID-19 this winter. The funding is to be directed at vaccination, testing and measures to protect aged care.

It also extended the COVID-19 National Partnership Agreement to 30 September. The agreement covers arrangements by the federal government to finance state health system costs for COVID.

National Cabinet has also agreed to extend the Rapid Antigen Test concessional access program to 31 July. Concession card holders will be able to access 10 additional free RAT tests.

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Written by Jan Fisher

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