Australia Covid update: positive test rate in NSW hits 20% high as Omicron cases surge

The positivity rate for Covid-19 cases in New South Wales has hit a high of 20% as the number of people in hospital with the virus passed 1,000 for the first time since the highly-contagious Omicron variant arrived.

On Sunday the number of people in hospital with Covid-19 in the state passed 1,000 for the first time since the Omicron variant saw case numbers surge, rising 18% in a day after the number had already doubled between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve.

The positivity rate also reached 20.3% on Sunday, meaning one in five people tested had Covid, well above the 5% the WHO deemed an acceptable rate of infection at the beginning of the pandemic.

The state recorded 18,278 new cases of Covid-19 on Sunday, a drop on the previous two days following a significant fall in the number of tests conducted. NSW Health said that 90,019 people had been tested in the previous 24 hours, down from 119,278 in the previous reporting period.

The fall in testing follows frequent urging from the NSW government for people not to line up for PCR tests unless they have symptoms or have been deemed a close contact.

The government has also changed its definition of a close contact in line with changes agreed to by National Cabinet last week.

“Testing capacity in NSW is currently under enormous pressure and the only people getting a PCR [nose and throat swab] should be those who have Covid-19 symptoms; live in a household with a confirmed Covid-19-positive case; or have otherwise been advised by NSW Health to get tested,” the health department said in a statement on Sunday.

“Interstate travellers and international arrivals are not required to have a PCR test and should instead undertake Rapid Antigen Tests, as per the guidelines for the respective states and territories.”

Covid rates continue to rise across the country with 7,172 cases in Victoria and three virus-related deaths, while Queensland reported 3,587 cases.

Extreme heat caused the closure of eight of Victoria’s testing sites on Saturday, blowing out queues and test result wait times.

Early childhood minister Ingrid Stitt said the state’s health minister would make an announcement on widening access to rapid antigen tests within days.

“We will have more to say in the next few days about how we will distribute rapid antigen tests for those who are eligible to use that as a way of ensuring they remain Covid-safe,” she said.

Queensland’s chief health officer, Dr John Gerrard, said on Sunday that of the state’s current cases there are 112 hospitalisations.

But while cases in Australia continue to reach record levels, there is growing evidence Omicron may lead to milder symptoms.

A study from London’s Imperial College found the risk of being admitted to hospital is up to 70% less for people with Omicron compared to those infected with Delta.

Of the 112 people in Queensland who are in hospital, only five were being treated in intensive care.

“The issue we are facing is of course that with the degree of contagiousness of this virus, we are going to be seeing very large numbers of cases, even though the severity is clearly going to be less, we are going to see very large numbers of cases and a small proportion of a very large number is still a large number,” Gerrard said.

The speed of infections with Omicron across the globe is causing concern for the world’s health authorities, who warn that even a milder variant could lead to health systems becoming overwhelmed.

Last week the WHO’s Europe Covid incident manager, Catherine Smallwood, warned that a “rapid growth of Omicron … even if combined with a slightly milder disease, will still result in large numbers of hospitalisations, particularly amongst unvaccinated groups, and cause widespread disruption to health systems and other critical services”.

In NSW, there is increasing evidence the state’s health system is wavering under the rate of infections. The health department announced late on New Year’s Eve that in “exceptional circumstances”, frontline workers who are asymptomatic close contacts will be exempt from having to self-isolate for seven days, to avoid disruption to key services, a decision experts labelled evidence of an “extremely desperate situation”.

It followed revelations in a leaked memo that revealed St George hospital in Sydney’s south was already planning to fly in nurses in an attempt to deal with staffing shortages and surging Covid cases.

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