COVID-19 in Ballarat: Health experts warn on virus party risks | The Courier

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HEALTH experts are pleading for people to stay safe as Christmas festivities step up amid a coronavirus surge in the region. Ballarat Health Services confirmed on Tuesday “a number of staff” from its Base Hospital and Queen Elizabeth Centre sites had tested positive to COVID-19 and were isolating. The Courier understands some of these cases were linked to an end-of-year party. A BHS spokesperson said contact tracing and testing was ongoing on staff, patients and families who were identifed as primary close contacts and that no additional cases linked to staff had emerged in the 24-hours to Tuesday. BHS said confirmed patient care was not impacted and the health service had been prepared to adapt to managing potential staff cases. All were being supported by BHS and the Grampians Public Health Unit. This comes as the Omicron threat intensifies with health experts saying the new COVID-19 variant was likely already here in Ballarat. Grampians Public Health Unit medical specialist Rob Grenfell confirmed genomic screening was under way on some COVID-19 tests from the region. This is not to suggest the Omicron screening was linked to BHS cases. Dr Grenfell said such analysis took time and, as such, the Grampians team was waiting to learn whether the variant was making its mark on the region. He reiterated the “three pillars” to help keep the deadly virus under control – testing, containment and vaccinations – remained vital, just as they do for any COVID-19 variant. But these were particularly pertinent as people began to mix more with parties and family gatherings these holidays. Ballarat recorded its equal highest daily, new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, with 14 new infections. This matches 14 cases to emerge on Friday. There were 89 active infections in Ballarat on Tuesday with 81 active cases in the neighbouring Moorabool Shire and a spattering of cases in other outer areas. Dr Grenfell said the highly-publised COVID-19 outbreak linked to the Greendale pub – which had sparked an unspecified number of cases – was an example of “why we need to look at taking precautions”. He said anytime you were spending time with strangers in large settings you were at a higher risk of contracting coronavirus. Mask-wearing, checking-in and QR codes, physical distancing and hand hygiene also remain key COVID-19 prevention tools. “Our response to the coronavirus overall is to in fact is to take this as the serious disease that is is,” said Dr Grenfell, who is also the CSIRO’s health and biosecurity lead. “…One of the other questions we’re getting a lot is should we be worried about Omicron in the region? The answer is Omicron globally Omicron has been declared a variant of concern by the WHO [World Health Organisation] and we are watching as it becomes the dominant variant in many countries across the globe. “It’s also predicted the current surge in New South Wales is due to an Omicron surge. In Victoria, at this stage, we are looking at Delta is still the dominant strain. As more information comes in, Omicron is emerging as a challenge.” IN OTHER NEWS Dr Grenfell stressed COVID-19 vaccine boosters’ role was vital in tackling the unfolding circumstances. He referred to data released at the weekend from the United Kingdom that confirmed two vaccine doses was better than no vaccinations, in terms of protecting against new strains. “What has become clear for us is that the two-dose schedule does not maintain the immunity necessary to reduce the severity of Omicron,” Dr Grenfell said. “The third dose of vaccine is one that will increase your immunity and reduce you chance of hospitalisation.” Dr Grenfell also said, as clearly found in South Africa, people who had contracted the Delta strain were not immune to Omicron or the severity of what this virus variant could inflict. Vaccinations could also protect against long-COVID effects. Meanwhile, a BHS spokesperson thanked the community’s patience and support amid ongoing COVID-19 cases, including those to have emerged within the health services. “As we learn to live with COVID-19 in our communities, we will see an increase in cases, and we are well prepared to manage this within the health service,” the BHS spokesperson said. “In many situations, new cases are not announced publicly, and some new exposure sites are not listed. This is because the risk of transmission to the community can be managed by the contact tracing teams.” BHS advises the following: TESTING sites for the deadly coronavirus continue to be swamped with the region’s health authorities unable to extend screening operations. Grampians Public Health Unit operations director Robyn Wilson said high demand for COVID-19 testing across the state meant Ballarat was not in a position to increase testing capacity amid a pre-Christmas rush. Ms Wilson said testing had been stood up in areas such as Maryborough, which was facing an outbreak, which helped to take pressure off Ballarat resources. But, unlike last year’s Ballarat-focused lockdown, the state was unable to send much more support. The BHS Creswick Road testing site has been processing about 500 COVID-19 tests daily. Ms Wilson said the strong response was great – showing people were doing the right thing – but, with staff required to maintain strict safety standards, this often meant a lengthy wait in queues. Heat would also slow operations with staff in full personal protective equipment requiring more breaks. The bulk of Ballarat’s testing was for asymptomatic interstate travellers. Ms Wilson said test results were typically returned within 24 hours. If queues look long, Ms Wilson suggested returning in the afternoon which was generally quieter – but this was never a certain. Ms Wilson also urged everyone to make use of the readily available rapid antigen test kits before spending time with people who were vulnerable. BHS’ testing site on Creswick Road will be open on Christmas morning, 9am to noon, and operate normal hours on all other public holidays. Redan’s drive-through testing, run by 4Cyte Pathology, will also remain open for screening with limited hours on Christmas Day. If you are seeing this message you are a loyal digital subscriber to The Courier, as we made this story available only to subscribers. Thank you very much for your support and allowing us to continue telling Ballarat’s story. We appreciate your support of journalism in our great city.


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