COVID-19 is on the rise again and it's clear we're entering another wave.
We don't know the exact number of cases - it is no longer required that people register their positive RATs and fewer people are having a COVID-19 PCR test when they get symptoms, so the numbers appearing in testing statistics represent only a small proportion of the real number of infections in our communities.
But we know for sure that cases are increasing as there are still some dependable canaries in the coalmine - sewage surveillance data, ED presentations, hospitalisations and outbreaks in residential aged care facilities.
The sewage surveillance program began in 2020 and the collection sites are Sydney Bondi, Quakers Hills, Liverpool and Burwood Beach sewage catchments. Infected people's stools contain viral fragments, and shedding can occur for several weeks beyond the person's infectious period. Tracking the level of viral fragments has been an excellent tool to detect trends, including when there is increased spread in the community.
The most recent samples indicate an upwards trend in viral fragment levels, including in the Burwood catchments, which incorporates Newcastle City area and surrounding suburbs of Dudley, Charlestown, Jesmond, Mayfield and Carrington.
We've also recently seen COVID-19 related hospital admissions across Hunter New England Local Health District almost double compared with what we were seeing in July.
We've also seen a recent increase in outbreaks in aged care with 12 facilities across our region actively managing cases among their residents.
The predominant COVID-19 variant we're seeing at the moment is EG.5 which has been circulating in Australia since earlier this year, but other variants are also on the rise. The good news is that EG.5 doesn't seem to cause more severe illness than previous variants. The bad news is that the new wave is expected to peak in December, meaning you could be spreading more than Christmas cheer over the festive season.
But we're well practised in protecting ourselves and our vulnerable family members and friends, and there are some important actions that might need some dusting off to ensure everyone stays well.
Messages around hand washing or using hand-sanitiser were drilled into us over the last few years and I hope that these habits have lasted beyond lockdowns and public health orders. Simple habits can make the world of difference.
Enjoy the warmer weather and have your gatherings outside, instead of in enclosed spaces, which will reduce the likelihood of virus spread.
While not the message everyone wants to hear heading into a season of parties and gatherings, you should stay home if you have cold or flu symptoms. Even if you don't think it's COVID-19, I'm sure your friends and family will appreciate you keeping it to yourself.
This is especially important if you plan on visiting a loved one in hospital or aged care. What might be a sniffle to you, could be very serious for someone more vulnerable. Even if you feel well, make sure you test before visiting a hospital or aged care facility and wear a mask if asked to.
Be prepared if you think you're at higher risk of serious illness; talk to your GP about a plan, including testing and the possibility of accessing antivirals to reduce your risk of severe symptoms. Do this while you're well - the faster you act when symptoms appear, the better off you'll be. Antivirals are most effective in the first 24 to 48 hours of illness.
Now is also a good time to consider getting a COVID-19 booster if you are over 65 years or at higher risk of severe illness and it has been six months since your last dose.
I'm aware there are still some reservations among some people around getting vaccinated but it remains our most solid defence against severe disease. Millions of doses have been safely administered all over the world and we continually track safety data. Unless you have a known contraindication, vaccination is a no-brainer.
Living with COVID-19 doesn't mean we need to help it spread. Some small changes now will ensure we remain safe and well over the festive season.
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