As the highly contagious new Omicron COVID variant continues to rapidly spread across Australia’s major cities, a host of Jewish medical experts and communal leaders are urging people to take “every measure and precaution available, including boosters” to protect themselves and the community.

Shane Desiatnik
The Australian Jewish News
December 24, 2021

At the time of going to press, new daily COVID case numbers, including the Delta and Omicron variants, reached more than 3000 in NSW – a record high – and almost 1300 in Victoria.

On Tuesday in NSW there were two COVID-related deaths reported by NSW Health, 285 people requiring hospitalisation, and 39 in Intensive Care Units (ICU) – a 50 per cent increase in a week.

For the same day in Victoria, there were six deaths, 392 people in hospital, and 73 in ICUs.

Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Jillian Segal told The AJN on Tuesday, as the pandemic continues, and with rising infection rates heading into the busy summer holiday period, “it is important that, as individuals and organisations, we continue to adopt – in addition to vaccination and boosters – the time-proven COVID-safe measures including hand-washing, social distancing, circulating fresh air and mask-wearing in indoor settings”.

“These are all in our control, and should be practised and encouraged.”

President of Wolper Jewish Hospital in Sydney, Richard Glass, said, “The key to living with COVID and its variants is for everyone who is eligible to receive a vaccine booster, make it a priority.

“In the meantime, people need to be particularly vigilant in mitigating their risk … at a time when many of the community safeguards are no longer mandated.

“We need to act with speed and agility, unapologetically, to contain outbreaks. Mask-wearing is explicitly recommended by NSW public health orders in any indoor situation where people cannot properly socially-distance, but without mandatory rules, individuals and organisations must step up and make the decisions that offer the most practical protection.”

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies president Lesli Berger “strongly encouraged” members of the community to schedule their booster shots as soon as they are able.

“It will minimise both the severity of symptoms, and reduce person-to-person transmission – this is essential to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our friends, and our community,” said Berger.

Professor Mary-Louise McLaws – a University of NSW epidemiologist, and member of COVID infection and control advisory committees for both the World Health Organisation and the NSW Clinical Excellence Commission – said there is still much to learn about Omicron in the coming weeks, but what is clear is it is highly contagious, and can be passed on by people even when asymptomatic.

“We are likely experiencing the beginning of the fourth wave [of the pandemic] in Australia, that will drive a sharp escalation in infections,” Professor McLaws told The AJN.

“As vaccine efficacy wanes over time, without a booster, people may be at risk of infection, severe illness, hospitalisation, or worse.

“There is very limited evidence as yet from the UK that Omicron causes a milder infection than Delta, which in Australia is likely still the dominant variant, and it is still too early to understand the long-term effects of infection.”

She concluded that with Omicron’s mutations to its spike that enable the virus to remain suspended in the air for much longer durations, “it is so important to prioritise your booster, and continue to protect yourself and others by wearing a mask when indoors [at venues] such as retail stores, places of worship and gyms”.

Sydney general practitioner and television presenter Dr Ginni Mansberg strongly recommends – given the number of asymptomatic cases – that “people use a rapid antigen test to minimise the chance of contagion prior to visiting vulnerable people, or after they have been in a high-risk setting”.

“And if you have any COVID-like symptoms [including coughing or a sore throat], please have a PCR test. The bottom line is you can’t be too careful in the face of a new highly contagious variant.”

Also urging vigilance – plus a call on state governments to reintroduce some withdrawn restrictions on how people mix whilst more information is gained about Omicron’s severity and ability to evade vaccines – are Melbourne-based Doherty Institute director Sharon Lewin and Professor of Epidemiology at UNSW’s Kirby Institute, John Kaldor.

Together with Professor Greg Dore from the Kirby Institute, they wrote an opinion piece published by Nine Newspapers last Sunday, arguing “we must rethink our opening-up plans … until these uncertainties are resolved”.

“If it turns out that Omicron causes much less disease than Delta, the most we will have lost is a few weeks of unrestricted gathering,” they claimed.

“In the reverse scenario, we will have prevented many thousands of transmissions, and put ourselves in a much stronger position to defend the health system.”