Almost five months into 2022, the number of COVID-19 related deaths in HNEH have increased seven-fold on the year before, with the virus contributing to the deaths of 136 people in the region in 2022 alone.
In 2020, five COVID-related deaths were recorded within the health district.
After the Delta and Omicron waves of the virus hit the region in 2021, 19 people lost their lives.
The increase in deaths came after the district recorded steep rises in case numbers in each subsequent year of the pandemic; from 278 in 2020, to about 13,000 in 2021. To date in 2022, there has been more than 201,900 positive cases recorded - a 15-fold increase on the year before when restrictions, closed borders, quarantine and other public health measures suppressed and eliminated the virus locally.
But Hunter New England Health's Dr David Durrheim said the number of positive COVID cases recorded so far in 2022 was still an "undercount" given the collapsed capacity of PCR testing services earlier in the year and the growing reliance on less sensitive rapid antigen testing, which can miss about one-in-four cases.
He said the region had "exceptional" control of COVID-19 in the first two years of the pandemic thanks to "stringent but effective" public health measures, and the low case numbers had translated into fewer deaths.
Dr Durrheim said Hunter New England's three-dose vaccination coverage - which is above 95 per cent for people aged 70 and over - had made a "huge difference" in helping us avoid the "catastrophic avalanche" of deaths other countries, like Hong Kong, have endured.
It's a big gamble now, removing all of the public health measures - the last ones being the close contact requirements - and putting it into the hands of individuals, and families, and workplaces and schools to do the right thing,- Dr David Durrheim, Hunter New England Health
He said the impact of vaccines had been "phenomenal", but they would not protect everyone.
"It's a big gamble now, removing all of the public health measures - the last ones being the close contact requirements - and putting it into the hands of individuals, and families, and workplaces and schools to do the right thing," he said.
The majority of 2021's COVID cases in the district began with the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron BA.1 variant in December, which has since been eclipsed by BA.2.
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The government had been "much less prescriptive" with mandatory public health measures since, relying heavily on vaccination rates to protect the community as much as possible.
"We have seen in other highly developed countries which had been successful in suppressing COVID too - like Hong Kong, unfortunately they didn't get the same vaccination coverage that we did," Dr Durrheim said.
"Hong Kong currently has the highest death rates due to COVID of any developed country in the world, and that is largely because they never got to the same levels, they got to 30-40 per cent vaccination coverage."
Dr Durrheim said as the final restrictions eased, we still had a moral, ethical and humane obligation not to spread the virus in the community.
"We know the majority of cases are the close contacts of known cases," he said.
"Potentially, if people do the wrong thing, this will release even more virus into the community.
"We all come into contact with people who are vulnerable.
"People who might be on chemotherapy or who have cancer - who might have been vaccinated but haven't had the same protective response; children who have inherited immune conditions; or the elderly whose immune systems don't mount as good a response.
"Mask-wearing is very simple and very effective and reduces the risk by half. The rest of us will hopefully realise there are close contacts walking around and we may want to wear masks too, particularly in crowded indoor environments."
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