Infectious diseases expert says the NT must heed Omicron lessons from NSW, eastern states

An infectious diseases expert says the Northern Territory only needs to have one super-spreader event for the Omicron variant to begin spreading like it has in Australia's eastern states.

Key points:

  • A leading epidemiologist says the NT could have an Omicron super-spreader event like those seen in NSW if COVID-19 restrictions are not in place
  • NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles says the Doherty Institute's coronavirus hospitalisation modelling does not account for the Omicron variant
  • Low-vaccinated Indigenous communities remain the NT's biggest health risk

His warning came after the NT tallied a record high of 37 new coronavirus cases on Thursday.

Of those cases, one was a nurse at Royal Darwin Hospital and two were people who attended the same birthday party in Darwin as a nine-year-old girl, who was recently identified as a case of community transmission.

No new cases of community transmission were confirmed yesterday.

NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner said authorities would change local public health settings if case numbers rapidly increased.

"At this stage, our measures are working," he said.

"We've got a low risk of incursion and we're being able to stay on top of it [and] our community transmission rate is on the floor."

Professor Mike Toole, an honorary Burnet Institute epidemiologist, said now that Omicron was in the community, Territorians should look to other states and territories for an indication of what lies ahead.

"Because you have so few restrictions, all you need is one infected person to go into a nightclub, or a bar, or a pub, or a cafe or a restaurant and spread it to many people," Professor Toole said.

"And we've never had a variant as infectious as Omicron."

So far, the NT government has resisted reintroducing measures like mask mandates, despite growing calls from Aboriginal health groups and infectious diseases experts for stronger health measures.

No clear hospitalisation modelling

In New South Wales, where Omicron cases have exploded in recent weeks, more than 745 COVID-19 patients are receiving treatment in hospital, with at least 60 in the ICU.

On Thursday, NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles conceded the highly contagious variant was a "game changer" that may affect the Doherty Institute's latest modelling around hospitalisations in the NT.

The Institute's modelling, released in November, showed that with 80 per cent of people aged 16 and older fully vaccinated, the NT's health system would be able to handle 30 to 100 COVID-19 cases per day.

Although Omicron appeared to result in fewer hospitalisations than Delta, Ms Fyles said several COVID patients in the NT had required hospital care for illnesses other than the virus, which "wasn't necessarily taken into account" with the initial modelling.

As of Thursday afternoon, there were 21 coronavirus patients in NT hospitals, but none in intensive care.

Professor Toole said if hospitals continued to fill up with COVID patients who were not sick enough to be in the ICU but still required hospital beds, the health system could buckle.

"This is the season when there's the most road trauma, the most domestic violence, the most attempted suicides and drug overdoses," he said.

"We can't afford to further pressure the health system."

Read more about the spread of COVID-19:

Concerns for remote communities

Sheralee Taylor, acting CEO of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, said she was "very concerned" about the prospect of an Omicron outbreak, given many hospitals were already facing widespread staff shortages.

"I'd hate to be in a situation like NSW, which is out of control," she said.

"It'd be devastating if Omicron reached our remote communities, particularly with low vax rates."

Professor Toole said for this reason, the NT should be the "most risk-averse jurisdiction" in Australia.

"We cannot afford to allow this virus to spread in communities where there are high rates of obesity, diabetes and other underlying risk factors," he said.

Dr Robert Parker, president of the Australian Medical Association's NT branch, agreed that low vaccination rates in some Indigenous communities was "the main risk factor in the Territory".

Dr Parker says COVID-19 is here and vaccination is our best protection now.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

"Obviously, people in those communities are at risk of getting severe health problems — potentially even fatal problems — which therefore adds pressure on hospital beds," he said.

Dr Parker said Territorians were now facing the real risk of catching COVID-19 when socialising, and urged them to get vaccinated and wear face masks when social distancing was not possible.

"Vaccination will protect the health system," he said.

"Appalling illness that wiped out whole families are now gone because of vaccines."

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