COVID-19 case numbers are falling around the country after the deadliest month of the pandemic to date, sparking optimism among epidemiologists that Australia might have passed the peak of its winter surge.
Victoria’s seven-day rolling average of new cases peaked last Tuesday at 11,783 and has fallen every day since. Using the same metric, cases in NSW have been falling since Thursday. Nationally, they have been falling since July 24.
COVID-19 cases have been declining nationally for the past week.Credit:Getty
The apparent decline in cases follows a fall in influenza cases, which continue to subside from their May peak, suggesting the worst of both waves may have passed for the Australian winter.
Some 1821 people died of COVID-19 in the last month. That is 16 per cent of the pandemic’s entire death toll and Australia’s deadliest month since the pandemic began.
University of Melbourne’s Professor James McCaw, who leads a team that provides epidemic analysis to the federal government, said it was now clear that the Australian BA.4/5 epidemic is nearing its peak.
But he warned that the sometimes weeks-long lag between people becoming infected and requiring a hospital bed meant the health system could still face several weeks of extreme strain.
“The most testing time for our hospital system will be now and through the next few weeks because hospitalisations inevitably lag behind the infection curve.”
McCaw said outbreaks in the ACT and Tasmania were clearly declining, but Victoria’s situation was harder to read because the state’s testing numbers tended to vary based on the day of the week, often dropping off on the weekend and then rising throughout the week.
Dr Robert Moss, a University of Melbourne epidemiologist within the Victorian government’s epidemic-tracking team, said: “It does look as though BA.5 may have peaked in a number of states. It’s a little earlier than we might have expected.”
However, he added that the stress on hospitals “could remain uncomfortably high for a while yet”.
BA.5 is a subvariant of Omicron, which caused a huge spike in cases in January.
This version of the virus is particularly good at evading the antibody protection generated by vaccines or infection. At the same time, vaccine protection has been waning, with only 71.3 per cent of Australians over 16 having had a booster shot.
While McCaw fears the worst may be to come for hospitals, other epidemiologists noted the number of people needing a bed was falling in several states.
Dr Romain Ragonnet, part of Monash University’s epidemiology team, said: “I am quite confident that our hospital system has now passed its most testing times. We seem to have passed the flu peak and we are approaching warmer days.”
Unlike earlier in the pandemic, authorities no longer have a firm grip on how much virus is in the community, as many people are either not getting tested or not reporting test results. Victorian authorities have said they suspect about half of new cases are being missed.
Rather than just looking at daily cases, some epidemiologists are now focusing on the total percentage of positive tests to track the virus.
In Victoria, that rate peaked in the first week of July and has since fallen slightly, while it has fluctuated in NSW.
“New cases have flattened out and are now likely declining in the majority of states, and we’re not seeing any rises in PCR-positive percentage,” said Associate Professor James Wood, a disease modeller at the University of NSW who provides data to state governments. “So that trend is realistic.”
University of Melbourne epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely came to the same conclusion, pointing to falling hospitalisation rates across the country as evidence that the surge is past its peak.
Blakely said BA.5 may continue to circulate, causing smaller waves as immunity from the vaccine wanes, or another variant may emerge and become dominant, leading to a new, larger wave.
“What happens beyond this wave? No one really knows,” he said.
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