How we adapt to our new COVID reality

Many people have experienced heartache at canceled plans over Christmas, thanks to isolation requirements and test delays caused by Omicron. The disappointment is harsh, but it reveals something about us as a community: that we continue to hope against the hope that we will overcome whatever the pandemic throws at us.

Optimism invites disappointment, but it is also the key to navigating life’s challenges. In NSW, our people continue to face adversity with hope – with world-leading vaccination efforts – and that’s why I know we will also get through this latest challenge.

Premier Dominic Perrottet with Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant on Wednesday.

Premier Dominic Perrottet with Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant on Wednesday. Credit:James Brickwood

All this has taken place against the nervous background of Omicron, the most transferable variant to date, which leads case figures higher than ever. However, our unusually high vaccination rates, further strengthened by a strong uptake of booster shots, help ensure that people who receive COVID have a much lower risk of becoming seriously ill.

Preliminary data also indicate that the Omicron variant is less severe than Delta. Recent estimates from the UK suggest a 15 to 80 per cent reduction in hospitalization risk compared to Delta, according to NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant. That’s why even the Queensland Chief Health Officer has said it’s time to change strategy and let the virus become endemic – essentially living with it.

It is tempting for some to argue that the pain and disappointment of the past few weeks could have been avoided and the case numbers remained low. But given Omicron’s hypertransmissibility, the only way to keep its numbers down would be to enforce the most severe shutdown to date: borders closed tightly, everyone stays home, jobs shut down, communities crippled. In short, Christmas canceled for everyone.

It’s hard to believe that anyone really wants that kind of answer, especially since even radical restrictions offer no guarantees – just look at Western Australia and the rapid rise in cases around the country.

As has been the case from the start, adaptation goes both ways. When the evidence told us we were going to move on masks and QR codes, we moved. If higher case numbers translate into a risk of too much pressure on our healthcare system, we will adapt again and continue to put safety first, while society continues to function as much as possible. Our experience so far is that the framework is appropriate, the number of people in hospitals (and especially in the intensive care unit) remains manageable, and the death rate has not risen sharply. These are the most important data to which we must now tailor our answers.

With a highly vaccinated population, we will no longer solve the problems in 2020, where the target was zero cases, or at least low cases. A heavily vaccinated population requires a new strategy that does not focus on cases, but on serious health impacts.

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