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SYDNEY, Australia: For the majority of 2020 and 2021, large parts of Australia managed to contain the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to an enviable level. Despite extremely high vaccination rates among the country’s adult population, the arrival of the Omicron variant in December 2021 has resulted in COVID-19 case numbers and related deaths rising significantly in the weeks since. As Australia’s healthcare sector grapples with the knock-on effects of this outbreak, neighbouring country New Zealand seems set to follow in its footsteps after several infections caused by Omicron were discovered.
When the first local Omicron-caused infection was discovered in Australia on 30 November, the nation was experiencing between 1,000 and 2,000 new COVID-19 cases per day. The variant’s extremely transmissible nature saw the number of daily new cases rise exponentially to an astounding 150,702 on 13 January, and more than a cumulative two million cases have been recorded to this point. To help alleviate the strain being experienced by hospitals, almost all forms of non-urgent elective surgery have been suspended in the states of Victoria, New South Wales (NSW) and South Australia.
Despite these drastic changes, there are several positive aspects connected with the current Omicron wave. The risk of dying from COVID-19 or developing a severe form of the disease appears to be lower than in previous waves—analysis of local state health data by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation found that, of patients hospitalised with COVID-19 during this outbreak, only 7.8% had been admitted to an intensive care unit. During 2020’s Delta variant-caused outbreak, this figure stood at 18.4%. In addition, a number of leading epidemiologists have predicted that Omicron infections have likely already peaked and that new case numbers will continue to decline in the coming weeks.
“I think in hindsight it could have been so much worse,” Dr James Trauer, associate professor and head of the Epidemiological Modelling Unit at Monash University, told the Sydney Morning Herald.
He added: “A lot of that was just luck that Omicron wasn’t severe. I hate to think of what would have happened if Omicron had the same severity as Delta and we let it go through like that. It would have been an unmitigated disaster.”
New Zealand prepares for Omicron spread
Until recently, New Zealand had been one of the few countries in the world yet to experience community transmission of the Omicron variant, experiencing approximately just 20 new COVID-19 cases per day in 2022. After the detection this past weekend of nine Omicron cases across both the North and South islands, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced a raft of measures designed to contain the infection’s spread, including greater mask wearing and social distancing requirements.
The new measures have already had an impact on Ardern on a personal level—her wedding to long-time partner Clarke Gayford, which was set to take place in February, has been postponed.
Business as usual for dentists
During previous COVID-19 waves, Australian dentists regularly faced stringent guidelines regarding the provision of dental services. This created major barriers to accessing dental services, and many Australians postponed their dental appointments indefinitely. Though the Omicron outbreak has had an impact on countless dental practices on an individual level, a governmental emphasis on personal responsibility in terms of COVID-19 transmission risk has meant that dental patients are still able to access most forms of dental care.
“As the community is not under lockdown, there are no requirements to limit the practice of dentistry at this time,” a spokesperson for the Australian Dental Association (ADA) NSW Branch told Dental Tribune International. This was echoed by Dr Matthew Hopcraft, CEO of the ADA Victorian Branch, who noted that dental workers who are close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases “are now allowed to immediately return to work as long as they test negative every day for five days with a rapid antigen test and wear an N95 mask at all times”.
To help minimise the risk of spreading COVID-19, vaccination mandates are in place for many dental professionals working in Australia. In Victoria, all healthcare workers will be legally required to have received a booster vaccination by 29 March, unless medically exempt, whereas all dental practice staff in NSW must have received their second jab by 28 February.
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