The ACT has radically altered its approach to COVID-19. Here’s what you need to know

The ACT government's approach to managing the COVID-19 outbreak has pivoted dramatically.

Case numbers are rising sharply and infections are spreading faster than authorities can detect them. 

As Omicron seems more contagious yet milder than other coronavirus variants, authorities are now prioritising vaccinations over containing the outbreak.

As a result, the government is taking a step back from tracking the disease and is asking Canberrans to step up — or, as ACT Chief Health Officer Kerryn Coleman put it, "help us out a little bit more".

The familiar definitions of close or casual contacts are gone.

Hospitals will also end the complete segregation of COVID-19-infected patients from others.

Most of these changes came into effect overnight. Here's how they affect you.

I think I've got COVID-19. What do I do? Canberrans with symptoms of COVID-19 should still get tested if possible.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

For now, little has changed if you have flu-like symptoms: you should head to a clinic to get a PCR test as soon as possible and isolate until you receive the result.

Yet this hasn't been easy in recent weeks, as demand for testing exploded.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said about one in every six Canberrans were tested in the past fortnight, but clinics and labs were now operating at close to full capacity.

He confirmed rapid antigen tests (RATs) were an option if PCR testing was inaccessible.

"It is most important that those who need a test, get a test," Mr Barr said.

"It is less important what kind of test that is."

Rapid antigen tests will be used increasingly instead of laboratory tests.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

National Cabinet also agreed last night to reduce reliance on the more-accurate PCR tests, to relieve pressure on nurses and laboratory staff.

Dr Coleman said that, in the near future, more Canberrans would self-diagnose with RATs and would not need to validate a positive result with a PCR.

"It's entirely likely that, for some groups of people, we will assume that they have COVID-19 based on the fact that they had symptoms and they've come into contact with someone who has COVID-19," she said.

I've tested positive to COVID. What do I do? COVID-positive Canberrans must still isolate for seven days.(ABC News: Niki Burnside)

Crucially, quarantine requirements remain in place for infected people.

So if you test positive, you must isolate for seven days from the date of your test, and stay isolated until ACT Health clears you.

The big change is in how the government finds those you may have infected. Short answer: it doesn't — you do.

Throughout the pandemic, health authorities reacted to confirmed cases with the so-called TTIQ protocol: test people exposed to the virus, trace their contacts, isolate them until they were confirmed as healthy and quarantine people with the disease.

That process was effectively dismantled last night, as was the familiar hierarchy of close, casual and "monitor for symptoms" contacts.

In its place is a new system, which Dr Coleman said was about the community helping itself, freeing up officials to focus on those who were most vulnerable.

"We need you to let other people around you know if you received a positive … test or if they have been exposed to COVID-19," she said.

"We won't be able to continue to do this for everybody."

The government has already stopped identifying exposure sites publicly.

So your task, if you get the disease, is to help others you may have infected. This is how you do it.

How do I know my risk of exposure to COVID-19? Infected Canberrans are expected to assess the risk they posed to others.(ABC News: Nick Haggarty)

There are four categories in the ACT's new exposure regime.

Each imposes different rules on the person you were in contact with, depending on the likelihood you infected them:

  • Household: The people you live with are most at risk. They "must" get a PCR test, declare online to ACT Health that they live with a positive case, and quarantine for seven days.
  • High: Those you spent a "long time" with — for example, most of a day — since two days before you had symptoms or tested positive. You may have spent the night with them or an extended period indoors, interacting closely without masks. They "should" get a PCR test, quarantine for seven days and take a RAT on day six.
  • Moderate: People you spent "some time" with, such as a couple of hours, a shared dinner or close company at a bar. They "should" take a RAT or a PCR test as soon as possible and, if negative, take a second RAT or PCR test on or after day six. The requirement to quarantine until a negative result is received still stands for the first test; there is no requirement to quarantine while awaiting results for the second test. If you have symptoms, head to a testing clinic for a PCR test.
  • Low: Others you spent a "very brief" time with, or people who spent time at a place where a COVID-19 case was. They "should" get tested if they develop symptoms — in other words, what everyone in Canberra is meant to be doing anyway — and quarantine until you receive a negative result.

Dr Coleman acknowledged this was a big shift in managing the outbreak.

"This is going to be really challenging for everybody and I encourage everybody just to consider and make that [risk] assessment themselves," she said.

"There are no right or wrong answers here."

Infected and non-infected patients to share hospital wards Some COVID-19-positive patients will be in regular wards, separated from others by curtains.(ABC News: Penny McLintock)

The other radical change is in how hospitals will manage COVID-19-infected patients.

To date, anyone with the disease has been kept away from others in separate wards.

Yet as coronavirus becomes more widespread, with many people not realising they have it, this segregation will block access to the specialist wards they may need.

From now, COVID-19 wards will be used only for infected people who have respiratory symptoms or a high infection load.

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith said this meant patients with a mild or asymptomatic form of the disease would be put in "the most appropriate ward for their condition".

"So, for example, a person presenting with a broken bone who happens to have mild COVID-19 will be cared for in a surgical ward," she said.

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Ms Stephen-Smith acknowledged this might concern many hospital users.

"I want to reassure Canberrans that, in making those changes, the focus remains on keeping hospitals functioning well and ensuring that they are safe for all patients and staff."

Those safeguards include all patients and workers wearing effective masks (P2 or N95), curtains drawn around each bed and, with a few exceptions, no visitors.

However, new "wards for vulnerable people" — such as patients who are immunocompromised or undergoing treatments that put them at risk — will open this week, to provide extra protection.

So, today is not so much about small steps as it is several giant leaps into a new "COVID-19 normal" Canberra.

Mr Barr said the next few weeks would be "challenging".

But the government is hoping Canberra — Australia's most-vaccinated city — pulls through mostly unscathed.

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