Even modest precautions can give Australia a fighting chance to contain pathogens while we ascertain the risk
Omicron is a clear and present reminder of the need for us to be ready to dial up our protection measures at short notice. This is what staying in control of the coronavirus requires. The new variant has appeared on the horizon just as we have taken larger steps in eastern Australia to ease restrictions with the virus circulating in the community, and further easing of rules on mask wearing expected soon.
New South Wales announced mask rules will be largely removed once the fully vaccinated rate reaches 95%, or 15 December, whichever is earlier. If Omicron does not put a spanner in the works, the idea is to contract the mask rules to select, higher risk settings including public transport, ground and air, as well as ride share, and for front of house hospitality workers in indoor settings if not fully vaccinated. Masks are also strongly encouraged in any indoor settings where distancing can’t be maintained.
We may not know whether we have a new variant in the community that needs more careful management until after it has already landed among us, so the horse may have already bolted before any response can be put in to effect. Focusing masks in areas where they can do the greatest good, in the closed indoor settings associated with public or shared transport, or hospitality where unvaccinated workers mix with patrons, at least takes some of the transmission risk out of these everyday activities.
The NSW rules are largely consistent with the Victorian rules on masks, especially after mid-December when mask wearing in retail is forecast to be eased there as well. Victoria also requires masks to be worn in hospitals and aged care, and some venues may set their own rules in either state on masks indoors. Keeping masks on in higher risk settings is wise as it preserves a low level of precaution that suppresses transmission risk, and that can be dialled up or down as needed when faced with a higher level of threat.
Dialling up existing low-level precautions is likely to enable more rapid responses than a standing start. Low level precautions that focus on the more vulnerable sections of the community, such as aged and disability care residences, and the areas most prone to transmission among strangers such as public transport, also protect us from the worst if a threat does emerge that is only apparent once already in the community, which is always the problem with a highly infectious pathogen like the coronavirus.
Unfortunately, this time, a quick response to tighten international borders did not prevent at least one person unwittingly bringing the Omicron variant into the community with news that a case visited the Central Coast in NSW soon after arriving on Saturday, before the arrival quarantine settings changed. Later that same day, the rules were changed to make hotel quarantine a requirement for any arrivals who had visited southern Africa within the previous two weeks, whether vaccinated or not.
Even modest precautions might make that little bit of difference to soften the risk of widespread community transmission, so the fact that mask wearing indoors outside the home in NSW is still in place is a good thing, as it happens. Similarly, testing all arrivals and having quarantine arrangements in place that can accommodate a change in public health orders at short notice is also something that other countries where Omicron is now already in the community no doubt wish they had. The two together mean that even if we do discover a potential threat after it may have already had the chance to land onshore, we can use the intel gathered on border control processes to enable a rapid response, stepping up testing and contact tracing measures. This is what we need to have a fighting chance to keep new variants contained until we have ascertained the risk they may pose, and the most appropriate way to respond.
As NSW vaccination rates nudge closer to 95%, or on 15 December, we will know more about Omicron and what that means for the planned further easing. Whatever happens, we need to be prepared for questions to be raised about emergent variants. Dialling up basic public health safety measures like masks is an important control mechanism, and when operating early in an outbreak, you get the best epidemiological bang for the buck as many infections can be prevented when transmission is slowed – it’s much easier to stop a ripple than a wave.
• Catherine Bennett is chair in epidemiology at Deakin University