Spain has started treating COVID-19 like the regular flu. When will Australia do the same?
Suspected cases are no longer required to get tested, while mandatory isolation of positive cases has also been scrapped.
Only those at particular risk (people over 60 and those with immune deficiencies) and certain groups (such as pregnant women and healthcare workers) will need to follow testing and isolation requirements.
Mask mandates, however, continue across Spain, with people required to wear them in indoor public spaces and on public transport.
Australian experts – including University of Melbourne epidemiology professor Tony Blakely – believe that while the country is on a similar trajectory, it is not there yet.
“Spain is starting to treat COVID like the flu. We’re not there yet because we still have Omicron BA.2 to wash and we can’t relax yet,” Professor Blakely told SBS News.
“Australia could get to a similar place to Spain in maybe four weeks or something,” he said.
How far is peak BA.2?
Professor Adrian Esterman of the University of South Australia, who was previously a consultant to the World Health Organisation, said different parts of Australia would hit the BA.2 peak at different times.
What is called
“ACT now has an effective reproduction number of less than one, which has probably peaked,” Professor Esterman told SBS News.
The effective reproduction number, or R, is a way of measuring the transmissibility of an infection, representing the average number of people to whom the disease could be transmitted by an infected person.
If R is greater than one, the infection will spread, but if it is less than one, it will gradually die out.
Professor Esterman said NSW, Victoria and South Australia – with an R of 1.02, 1.06 and 1.09 respectively – are closest to hitting the BA.2 peak.
Tasmania and Queensland (R of 1.12), WA (R of 1.14) and the Northern Territory (R of 1.19) are next in line, he said.
The issue of masks
But even after BA.2 spikes in Australia, experts say, mask requirements in the country will hamper the pace of its COVID-19 recovery.
Clinical epidemiologist Nancy Baxter pointed out a key difference between what is happening in Spain and Australia.
“One of the great things [in Spain] is the continued requirement to wear a mask in indoor public spaces,” she told SBS News.
In contrast, wearing masks in most indoor settings is not mandatory in most jurisdictions in Australia, including NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT.
Masks are still required in indoor settings in Western Australia and South Australia, but the latter is set to phase them out on April 14.
“Relaxing isolation rules for people who have tested positive has entirely different implications if mask-wearing remains mandatory,” Professor Baxter said.
Professor Esterman agreed, saying scrapping mask mandates was not a sensible idea.
“It sends a message to the general public that the pandemic is over and life can return to normal,” he said.
But that’s not the case, he said, adding that a new variant of COVID-19 could arise at any time.
“There is already a new variant, which is now under surveillance. It’s called DeltaChrome. He has Delta’s body and Omicron’s tip, which – theoretically – makes him as transmissible as Omicron and as mean as Delta,” he said.
“Now fortunately there have only been a few cases worldwide and there is no evidence that it will take over from Omicron,” Professor Esterman said, adding that the pandemic will only be truly over when we have generic broad-spectrum vaccines. protection against all current and future variants of COVID-19.
“These vaccines are in the pipeline. In the next two years, there is a good chance that we will have one. But we have to be careful over the next few months or even years,” he said.
Stock up on masks
Until then, Prof Blakely said, Australia must remain vigilant.
“The two biggest policy failures of this pandemic were the lack of purpose-built quarantine facilities and the fact that someone forgot to order the rapid antigen tests last year,” he said.
“We don’t want to repeat that. So I think we should stock N95 and KN95 masks in case we have a bad variant coming later this year.
“Because these masks really work better than cloth masks and [using them] could mean we can continue to operate reasonably normally without going into a lockdown,” he said.