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Australia's Deputy CMO says vaccines are working, urges people to take booster and not have 'fatalistic approach'

Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Michael Kidd. Source: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Michael Kidd blamed the Omicron variant for a record increase in COVID-19 cases despite more than 90 per cent double vaccination rate in the country. He said it's likely that the Omicron outbreak will be a wave, meaning that it will come to a peak of infections and then diminish.

Listen to Professor Michael Kidd's full interview by clicking the audio icon in the picture.

Edited excerpts: 

What's the reason behind this record number of COVID-19 cases in Australia despite more than 90 per cent double vaccination rate? 

We're seeing such record numbers of infections because of the Omicron variant. It is much more infectious than the original strain of COVID-19 or the other variants that we were dealing with last year, particularly the Delta variant. And so, therefore, we're seeing a much larger number of people being infected with COVID-19. 

Fortunately, though, we are one of the most highly vaccinated countries in the world, so our population has a high degree of protection against becoming seriously unwell when people are infected with Omicron. 

Cars line up at a testing site in Brisbane. (file)
Cars line up at a testing site in Brisbane. (file)
AAP Image/Bianca De Marchi

Although we are seeing lots of people reporting infections, many of those people have no symptoms at all. If they do have symptoms, it's just what we call mild symptoms, runny nose, dry cough, sore throat, aches and pains. Very few people are becoming seriously unwell, needing medical care, hospitalisation and intensive care treatments.

Having said that, though, we have had just yesterday (last week) a record number of people who lost their lives in New South Wales to COVID-19. So because of the very large number of people being infected, we are still seeing some people becoming seriously unwell and tragically losing their lives. 

But if we hadn't had such a strong vaccination uptake in Australia, it's likely our healthcare system would be overwhelmed. It's likely we'd have much higher numbers of people in hospital intensive care and much higher death rates from COVID-19. 

Our vaccination programme is protecting most people in Australia, but we are still seeing some vaccinated people getting COVID-19 and symptoms. This is why we have the booster programme.

The booster programme helps to give your immune system that extra lift and makes it less likely that you will develop symptoms and be able to transmit to other people. 

The number of hospitalisations is also rising. Does it mean the current vaccines are not protecting people against the Omicron variant? And is that the reason we need a booster dose?

Vaccines are effective. It's just that they're not as effective, not quite as effective, as they were against the Delta variant.

So the vaccines do provide a level of protection, and we've seen that in the fact that we haven't had very large numbers of people becoming gravely unwell in Australia, as we saw happen in other countries earlier in the pandemic. 

So the vaccines are working. We do need those boosters at the four-month period to provide that extra level of protection. Again, people have been turning up in record numbers to get their boosters as well. We're delivering more vaccines through our general practitioners, pharmacies and other vaccination centres this week than we have at any other time during the pandemic.

Many people are unwilling to take booster doses. They argue everyone will get COVID eventually. Today, it's the Omicron variant, and tomorrow there will be another. So every time there's a new variant, people will be asked to take a new booster shot.

We don't know what's going to happen in the future. But my message to everybody is you don't want to get COVID-19. You want to do all you can to prevent from contracting this serious communicable disease. 

Even though we've had a million people diagnosed with COVID-19 in Australia, we still got 25 million people who have not been diagnosed with COVID-19. So, I don't think we should have a fatalistic approach to this. I think we should be doing all we can to keep this under control.

It's likely that this Omicron outbreak will be a wave, meaning that it will come to a peak of infections and then diminish, as we've seen with the other waves of infection that have occurred in Australia and every other country around the world. 

So vaccination, public health measures and protective measures are important. All of us are playing our part to try and reduce the risk of transmission.

Have we predicted the peak of Omicron variant?

We have not predicted the peak. We've been watching to see what's happened in other countries, particularly South Africa, where the Omicron was first picked up, and it appears to have passed its peak of infections. But the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa has been different to the pandemic in Australia because they've had many people in their population infected with COVID-19 during past outbreaks, and some people infected two or three times. In Australia, this is the first time that we're seeing large numbers of people being infected with COVID-19. 

We have been mainly asking people and businesses to take COVID-19 measures, but what about the federal and the state governments, which appear to have let their guard down and are constantly changing the definition of close contact.

Prime Minister meets with premiers and chief ministers of states and territories every week through the national cabinet and setting the national policy. That policy is implemented in each state and territory depending on what's happening with that outbreak in that area. So we do see differences as we have seen throughout the pandemic in public health measures in individual states and territories. That's understandable, although it's also somewhat confusing for the public.  

As a medical professional, do you think it's time to bring back those restrictions and lockdowns to stem the rising number of COVID-19 cases?

We are seeing some restrictions again based on what's happening with the current outbreak situation in states and territories. We hope that we don't see large-scale lockdowns appearing again in Australia. We know how disruptive that is to the lives of everybody. But we are also following closely to what's happening to other countries.  

The most important factor from my perspective as a doctor is that we don't overwhelm our healthcare system. We talked about flattening the curve for the last two years. It's really important that our hospitals, intensive care units, emergency departments, pharmacies and general practitioners are still there and available when people need them.

Listen to Professor Michael Kidd's full interview by clicking the audio icon in the picture.

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