Australian Covid-19 cases soared to a pandemic record on Tuesday as the Omicron variant ripped through most of the country, driving up hospitalisation rates as the once-formidable testing regime buckled under lengthy wait times and stock shortages.
The country which for a year and half used a system of constant testing, contact tracing and lockdowns to squash most outbreaks, clocked 47,799 new infections, up nearly a third on Monday’s number which was also a record.
Political leaders have pointed to a largely successful, if slow, vaccination rollout and few deaths, relative to new case numbers – four on Tuesday. But hospitalisations, another closely watched measure, are higher than at any other time in the pandemic: 1,344 in the most populous state New South Wales.
In Victoria, the second state, the authorities said one in four people showing up for a swab test was returning a positive result. Almost everyone in that state’s intensive care units was unvaccinated, the authorities said. Victoria had 14,020 new cases, nearly double the previous day’s count.
Other states which had spent much of the pandemic with domestic borders closed and long stretches without a new case, showed similar numbers. A month ago, Queensland reported a day with six new cases; on Tuesday it recorded 5,699.
Across the country, political leaders have been re-shaping their messaging for a population that is more than 90% vaccinated and a variant that some medical experts say is more transmissible but less virulent than previous strains.
After nearly two years of campaigning for widespread testing, the authorities want asymptomatic people to bypass government-funded clinics, where high volumes have blown out turnaround times to several days, and take their own rapid antigen tests.
But that has brought a new pressure point: an explosion in sales of home testing kits, resulting in reports of stockpiling, empty shelves and inflated prices on the few kits which have not yet been sold. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has ruled out subsidising the personal testing kits, citing a heightened role for “personal responsibility”.
“The problem at the moment is that the lack of (rapid antigen tests) is completely hampering ‘personal responsibility’ and it is a frustration that is a glaring hole in the current management of Covid,” Chris Moy, vice president of the Australian Medical Association, told ABC Radio on Tuesday, using Morrison’s phrase.