Statement on National Cabinet Meeting

National Cabinet met today to discuss pandemic management. The agenda included the epidemiology of the omicron wave, the vaccine rollout, health system capacity, rapid antigen testing, close contact furlough arrangements for essential workers and the national back to school framework.

Pandemic management

The ACT’s broad public health objective continues to focus on reducing community transmission and disease through strong vaccination programs and public health measures such as mask mandates, density limits in venues and restrictions on high risk settings. This is reducing pressure on our hospitals and protecting those most vulnerable.

Omicron outbreak epidemiology

Case numbers have continued to increase in the ACT but not at the levels seen in larger jurisdictions. Local modelling indicates that we are likely close to reaching a peak in cases and hospitalisations from this Omicron wave. Genomic sequencing indicates that 98% of the virus circulating in the ACT is Omicron. Hospitalisations have increased in recent weeks, consistent with increasing case numbers in the community. Most of these cases have been admitted to general wards and the average length of stay for patients with the omicron variant has reduced to around two days. A small number of hospital admissions require ICU care, and most of these patients report being unvaccinated.

Health System Capacity

Our hospital capacity planning is based on our data and the experiences seen locally and overseas. Our modelling indicates that we are likely close to reaching a peak in cases and hospitalisations from this Omicron wave. However we are prepared if the outbreak continues. Recently introduced changes around patient cohorting will help our public hospitals manage these patients, alongside our existing patient load.

Vaccination

The ACT is leading the nation on vaccinations. Almost 4,500 children aged 5-11 have been vaccinated in the ACT since Monday, the highest proportion of any jurisdiction in the nation with 11.1% receiving a first dose in the first three days. Nationally, the coverage is around half of that at 6.2%. 26.8% of eligible Canberrans (18+) have already received their third dose of a vaccine. Anyone who is eligible should make their booster booking as soon as possible, this is the best defence against the omicron variant, it remains the best way to prevent serious illness and reduce transmission and disease.

Testing

With Rapid Antigen Tests still in short supply, our testing system has been under significant strain for the past month. 64,893 PCR tests have been conducted since the beginning of this year (until Jan 12th). Now it is important to recognise the role tests play in our health response and how they can be used most effectively as we transition to the next stage of the pandemic. With supply increasing, the ACT Government will be able to make more Rapid Antigen Tests available for free in coming days. For example, tomorrow at the Kambah testing facility RATs will be available in place of PCR Testing from 10am, PCR testing will resume next Monday. Priority for all testing sites is given to household close contacts, high risk exposures to positive cases and individuals with symptoms of COVID-19. As further supply becomes available, tests will be available in a broader range of settings.

Schools and Early Childhood Education and Care

We are planning for school to go back as planned next month. The final decision will be made by Government based on the latest health advice next week – to give adequate time for families and teachers to prepare. The Government is currently engaged in planning with key stakeholders across the health, education and early childhood sectors. Schools and early childhood centres will have clear guidelines, and these will be published online. We will see more cases as school returns and we will manage exposure risk based on the health advice.

Essential Workers

The ACT Government is committed to keeping workers safe. We are exploring how essential workers who are close contacts and not sick can return to work. This will be based on health advice and the obligations employers have under the ACT work health and safety framework. Access to Rapid Antigen Testing and appropriate personal protection equipment are a key consideration. We will work closely with unions and business groups to ensure exemptions work for employers and employees, with any arrangements to be voluntary. The guidance will outline the responsibilities of employers that exist under relevant work health and safety laws in their jurisdiction. Any testing done in the workplace must be done at no cost to the employee. This is also the case for the provision of other forms of PPE.

National Cabinet will meet again next Thursday.

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