Australian health officials say there are encouraging signs that a wave of COVID-19 omicron variant infections is in decline. However, more than 4,000 Australians are hospitalized with the virus and an unknown number of others are suffering the effects of long COVID.
COVID-19 no longer makes the headlines as it once did in Australia. Strict public health measures, including lockdowns, curfews, mask mandates and international border closures that were imposed during the pandemic have come to an end.
The country is doing its best to live with the virus.
More than 95% of Australians older than 16 have received two doses of a coronavirus vaccination, according to government data. More than 70% of the eligible population — 14 million have had three or more doses.
But the virus persists. Officials have said omicron variants have fueled a recent wave of infections that has coincided with winter in the southern hemisphere. It appears to be weakening. Still, dozens of deaths and thousands of infections are being reported every day.
Leading epidemiologists at the Burnet Institute, a Melbourne-based medical facility, have released new research showing how many lives could be saved if more Australians wore masks.
The institute’s chief executive Brendan Crabb said face coverings continue to be an important defense against the disease.
“We have to change from a high COVID strategy to a low COVID one. We have done modeling with mask use and increasing mask use to say that if that happened even from July that many cases, up to 20% of cases, 20% of hospitalizations, and 14 percent of deaths between July and October could be averted,” said Crabb.
Australia had some of the world’s toughest disease-control measures. Most foreign nationals were banned from Australia for more than two years after March 2020. Australian citizens needed government permission to leave the country. The military was deployed to enforce lockdowns and vaccine mandates were imposed on some key workers.
The country’s coronavirus strategy now relies on individuals making their own decisions about vaccines, masks, hygiene and distancing. However, experts say that the return of personal freedoms has come at a cost.
Australia has recorded 12,400 deaths from coronavirus since the start of the pandemic. More than half of the fatalities occurred in 2022 when restrictions were scrapped.
Government data Wednesday has shown that 9.6 million COVID-19 cases have been diagnosed in Australia during the pandemic. 270,000 active cases are reported across the country.