Experts say the NT should expect ‘exponential’ growth in COVID-19 case numbers — but there’s no need to panic

Health experts say people can expect to see an "exponential" increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the Northern Territory as borders remain open and the Omicron variant continues to spread – but they also say that growth shouldn't necessarily be cause for alarm.

Key points:

  • Daily COVID-19 case numbers in the NT have almost doubled in the past week, reaching a new record of 117 on Wednesday
  • Experts say the reopening of borders and spread of Omicron mean cases could double every three to seven days
  • They say Territorians should expect large case numbers and take simple steps to protect their health

On Wednesday, the NT registered a new record of 117 for daily COVID-19 case numbers and community transmission spiked.

"It's pretty clear around the world that with Omicron, when you get exponential growth, you get a doubling of cases every three or four days and that's because this variant is so transmissible," said Hassan Vally, an associate professor in epidemiology at Deakin University.

"Exponential growth is one of those concepts that I still don't think is naturally intuitive for people to understand, but [it means] 150 cases today, will be 300 cases in three or four days' time.

"And then before you know it, those numbers can get really large."

Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from January 5 with a look back at our blog

The jump in the NT's COVID-19 case numbers has been so steep in recent days that even Health Minister Natasha Fyles and Chief Health Officer Hugh Heggie have expressed some concerns.

But epidemiologists such as Dr Vally and University of Queensland professor of medicine Paul Griffin say the numbers are no surprise based on the experiences of other states and territories, which hold some lessons for what the NT can expect from now on.

"I think it would be very reasonable to expect a significant, ongoing increase in numbers," Dr Griffin said.

"We often talk about a doubling time of say three to five, or maybe up to seven, days, meaning we'd expect the cases to double every few days, most likely, in the coming days or weeks."

Rising case numbers the 'new normal'

COVID-19 cases in the NT have risen significantly ever since the Territory reopened its borders to the rest of the country on December 20.

On the date — just over two weeks ago — there were 14 new cases recorded in the NT.

Since then, new daily case numbers have progressively increased, reaching 60 last Friday, 95 on Sunday and finally surging past 100 on Wednesday. 

Cases of community transmission have also jumped, with 29 recorded on Wednesday — a figure Health Minister Natasha Fyles said was a "significant increase" on previous figures.

The NT government has said it's all part of "learning to live with" COVID-19.

"As we've consistently said, our goal is not to stop this virus, it is to ensure that we don't overburden our health system," Ms Fyles said on Wednesday.

"It will become endemic at some point but it certainly is a transition phase as we all learn to live with COVID in our community, and we want to make sure that we're managing that speed of spread. That is our key aim."

NT records 117 new COVID-19 cases

The Northern Territory sees a new daily record of 117 cases of COVID-19, including a "seriously unwell" baby, says NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles. 

Read more

Dr Vally said as dramatic as the increase in cases seemed to be, which was partly because of the greater infectiousness of the Omicron variant, the reality was it was part of the "new normal" with COVID-19.

"Having cases definitely is the new normal, and that's where we're heading to, where it's going to be normal to have cases circulating in the community," he said.

"I don't think we're there yet. We're still in a pretty unstable situation with Omicron, and those cases can explode and get away from you. But we're heading in the right direction."

Dr Griffin said the health recommendations for managing COVID-19 were becoming increasingly similar to those for managing the flu, though it was still a "vastly different virus".  

He said as case numbers continued to rise and health advice changed, it was important for Territorians to "adapt their expectations" about the virus.

"It's really clear we're in for the long haul here; we're never going to get back to having zero cases in most parts of this country," Dr Griffin said.

"We just need people to adapt their expectations to the phase of the pandemic that we're in now and have faith in those strategies that we know will be the main things we'll do moving forward, in terms of vaccination and [other] simple strategies."

Read more about the spread of COVID-19:

No need for further health measures: Experts

The NT government has repeatedly said in recent weeks that the Territory must adjust to living with COVID and that there are no current plans to go back to lockdowns, though less severe measures such as lockouts and mask mandates could be used from time to time.

The health experts agree.

Dr Griffin said lockdowns and other, harsher restrictions were no longer practical for the NT and most of Australia where COVID-19 was already circulating. 

"I guess you can never say never with this virus, but I think based on what we know now, with our current situation, lockdowns and border restrictions should really be a thing of the past," he said.

"I really would like to think that it's not something that we would consider using at the moment, outside of truly extenuating circumstances.

"The higher we get our vaccination rate, the less likely we are to have to rely on those harsher mitigation strategies … that's why, if we can get that rate well up into 90 per cent mark across the country … then I think our chance of needing any of those stricter measures really goes down to very close to zero."

Dr Vally also said a return to lockdowns in the NT, as well as elsewhere, was unlikely. 

"It'll become pretty apparent if things are spiralling out of control … and if that happens, that's when you'll need to start thinking about some additional restrictions," he said.

"But I'm not sure, even taking into account the vulnerability of your population, whether you're there yet."

The NT is unlikely to go back to lockdowns, experts say.(ABC News: Che Chorley)Protection now down to 'simple steps'

For now, a Territory-wide indoor mask mandate announced by the NT government on New Year's Eve is designed to give Territorians some protection from catching the virus from others or spreading it themselves, and lockouts are still an option.

The eligibility period for booster shot appointments has been brought forward from five to four months, allowing more people to get vaccinated.

And the NT government has also reminded Territorians to use the Territory Check-In app whenever they go into a venue, so they can be notified if they come into contact with a case.

Dr Griffin said as well as those measures, the best way Territorians could protect themselves from COVID-19 from now on was by taking personal responsibility and following simple, well-known health advice, such as social distancing and staying home if they felt sick.

"What's clear is the vaccine is going to be the backbone of our response moving forward, but we need to give that a little bit of a helping hand," he said.

"Masks certainly do that.

"Making sure people that are positive or symptomatic stay home to limit their spread, that certainly helps as well.  

"There's a big different between just letting it rip and doing nothing, and having some simple, effective, feasible, sensible strategies in place as well, to just take the edge off transmission to a degree."

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