Covid hospital admissions have reached their highest level since early February when Australia’s health system faced great pressure at the end of the first Omicron wave.
The surge has prompted calls from leading epidemiologists and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) for stronger mask mandates, with concerns there are double the number of infections silently spreading through the community than official figures suggest.
The national total of hospital admissions reached 3,781 on Wednesday, up from 3,740 on Tuesday and 3,511 on Monday – the highest numbers have been since 8 February.
The nation is recording on average 33,000 cases each day.
The fresh wave of Covid cases and the spike in hospital admissions is being driven by the highly transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 variants of Omicron, which are more infectious and adept at evading immunity.
Prof Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University, said there are likely double the recorded cases in the community.
“The reported cases are half of the numbers out there,” Bennett said.
“Some people will know and isolate, some will guess and not isolate, and some will not know.”
Bennett said in Victoria, where Covid has been recorded in 40% of the wastewater, the state might be halfway to the peak – which should end in late July or early August.
“This is like a deep wave with multiple surges in it,’” she said.
“I think if you look back at BA.1, we peaked dramatically high, we came up and down. With BA.2 we were going into autumn/winter – then it pushed up and down again.
“But with BA.4/BA.5, it doesn’t drop away, which means the wave doesn’t look as dramatic.”
She said people should get their third and fourth doses, in line with Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) advice.
“If your booster can reduce the likelihood of infection for up to a couple of months, why wouldn’t you do it?”
It comes amid reports the fourth dose of coronavirus vaccine will be made available to anyone over the age of 30. Currently, the fourth dose vaccine is only available to people aged 65 and over, or those suffering conditions placing them at higher risk of severe Covid.
The winter wave is putting increasing pressure on the nation’s hospitals, the University of South Australia professor of biostatistics Adrian Esterman said.
“We are seeing a very steep increase in case numbers,” Esterman said. “Should we be worried? Yes, because the health system is under enormous pressure right now.
“The problem at the moment is in every state and territory the hospital systems are struggling,” he said.
“There’s the usual problem with bed blockages. They can’t get people out of acute care, or from ED to acute care, or from the ambulance to ED – so a lot of capital cities have ambulance ramping.”
The AMA’s vice-president, Chris Moy, said in terms of crowding this is the worst he had ever seen it.
“It’s pretty desperate. They are as full as they ever have been,” Moy said.
“Everybody telling me it’s horrific. It’s winter, and there’s the flu, but they’re also seeing a lot of mental health patients at the moment. Covid is adding an extra layer.”
The increased pressure on the health system has sparked debate about whether broader mask mandates should return, with discussions taking place in SA, Queensland and the ACT.
This week Queensland’s chief health officer, John Gerrard, told 4BC the mask mandate was being discussed with counterparts in other states, but the premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk ruled it out.
In New South Wales the chief health officer, Kerry Chant, urged people to consider wearing masks in enclosed spaces.
Both Moy and Esterman said if cases continue on the same trajectory, a mask mandate should be implemented.
“I can see a stage in the next weeks where the hospital system is under so much pressure they might have to reintroduce mask mandates,” Esterman said.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of cases diagnosed, and that will inevitably lead to more people being hospitalised.
“We are definitely seeing a third Omicron wave caused by BA.5 variant, and that’s only just started, so things will get worse before they get better.”