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NSW Government slammed as COVID cases soar

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NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard and Premier Dominic Perrottet are dealing with the consequences of lifting restrictions early (Screenshot via YouTube)

Leading epidemiologic expert, Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, has slammed the NSW Government’s COVID-19 “live with the pandemic” plan.

In an exclusive interview with Independent Australia, Professor McLaws said:

I see that the NSW Health Department and Minister of Health are abandoning public health responsibilities and focusing on only hospital cases. This prevents people from knowing where not to go or where to go with a mask on.

 

Hospitalisation can be manipulated — RACF (residential age care facility) cases were prevented from admission to hospital, hospitalisation numbers will be suggestive of not mild cases but non-hospitalised cases can be like “being hit by a truck” (described to me by a person infected) so not keeping numbers by area will reduce the public’s knowledge and ability to responds.

 

It certainly reduced public health people like myself as being able to comment. This is not democracy in action.

Given the astonishing silence of the mainstream media over the rapidly rising case numbers in Byron Shire (case numbers now represent 0.56 per cent of the Byron population), together with growing community outrage and concern over the real extent of the outbreak, Professor McLaws’ responses reveal an outrageous lack of responsible government. 

Bottom line — you’re on your own. Don’t expect the Government to protect you.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet told people to take personal responsibility to avoid COVID-19 infection before Christmas as most restrictions were lifted. In spite of Health Minister Brad Hazzard anticipating 25,000 people a day will probably be infected by the end of January as the Omicron variant spreads.

“We are determined to bring our community back to a full life of normality,” said the Premier as NSW reported 1,360 new cases, a 70 per cent increase on the day before.

Masks no longer need to be worn in hospitality or retail settings. Music festivals will be allowed for up to 20,000 people.

It will no longer be necessary to show evidence of vaccination at most premises.

Byron is a national and international destination. A tourism paradise with many businesses, both big and small relying on visitors. Over the last 18 months, Byron has managed to avoid any serious outbreak but with the lifting of restrictions and travel bans, a different scenario is unfolding.

As Byron is under the control of the northern NSW local health office, IA posed a series of questions to Wayne Jones, chief executive of Northern Rivers NSW local health district.    

Massive numbers of schoolies and tourists have descended on the area celebrating with big parties and long queues to the pubs. So far, the outbreak of cases, 341 as of today, have come from a couple of party events.

But the cases reported by NSW Health doesn’t identify tourists and people who live outside the area as local cases. Instead, their case is listed under their home post code.

IA asked Jones to clarify the logic of this decision.

The response denies common sense:

Allocation of COVID-19 cases to geographic areas is based on the address provided by the individual at the time of testing.

 

In some instances, this may be updated if required at a later stage as part of the contact tracing investigation process. From time to time, cases are reassigned to other Local Health Districts as a result.

 

At times, a temporary resident or visitor to our area may list a Northern NSW address and these cases would also be counted towards the NNSWLHD case tally.

In response, Professor McLaws says that:

‘The address of everyone tested should be the address at the time of the test and if it’s not their permanent address then there should be an additional data entry of home address. Otherwise, hotspots are unlikely to be immediately accurate.’

QR codes are no longer required to be displayed by supermarkets, shopping centres and certain businesses. Although the plan is that checkiins will be required for higher risk settings including hospitals, aged and disability care facilities, places of worship, funerals, pubs, small bars, clubs, nightclubs and indoor music festivals with over 1,000 attendees, no COVID safety plans for businesses will be required. 

Wayne Jones says:

‘People who have been to a venue around the same time as a person with COVID-19 will receive a COVID-19 case alert from Service NSW. The alert provides general health advice to monitor for symptoms and get tested if symptoms appear.’

Service NSW goes further:

‘People who have received a COVID-19 alert do not need to contact the business or their family and friends about the alert.

 

NSW health will no longer list case locations that a COVID-19 positive person has attended. This is due to a number of reasons, including high vaccination rates in the community.’

Professor McLaws says:

Without QR codes, there will be no broad contact tracing except going back to pre-QR codes that is via a positive test and their contacts given. This is unlikely to occur due to high numbers of positive cases. No, this is not acceptable outbreak control its more like the authorities deciding not to attempt to control COVID spread any longer.

 

People attending a venue at the time of a positive case are unlikely to be contacted when QR codes are abandoned. The only people who “could” be contacted but are unlikely are those known to the case.

More than 500 cases have been reported in Newcastle, currently with 2,356 cases recorded, with a nightclub identified as a super-spreader location.

Meantime, the outbreak in Byron has not been reported. Locals claim that numbers are far higher than estimated by NSW Health. Anecdotal evidence demonstrates that many residents know of locations and cases that have not been made public. A growing number of schools have been closed down.

For years, the Government has ignored all efforts by the Byron Council and the community to have a tourism tax. As the existing infrastructure groans under the weight of over 2 million visitors a year, while more and more people pour into the area, the potential for a major COVID-19 outbreak potential weighs heavily on its residents.

Byron Hospital has no ICU beds. Hospitals in the regions have a limited number of ICU beds but staffing is becoming a major problem. Northern NSW Local Health District claims it ‘has sufficient intensive care beds across our three major hospitals in Grafton, Lismore and Tweed’.

It’s doubtful that the nursing profession would agree. In the U.S., staffing has become a significant problem as many health workers are getting sick, despite vaccinations. ICU patients require specially trained staff.

NSW Health says:

‘In this phase of the pandemic, the onus is on each of us to keep the other safe...’

The burning question must be: How?

Add to the mix the looming arrival of 200,000 skilled workers and international students who are only required to isolate for 72 hours. A COVID-19 PCR test must be taken in the first 24 hours and again on day six.

Exactly how many staff will be required to monitor this traffic is unclear.

The two week quarantine requirement for travellers from southern African countries with high levels of Omicron, previously banned from entering, has now been ditched.

The UK anticipates a COVID-19 surge with fears of 1 million cases by the new year. Australians can only hope that some sanity remains in our community.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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