Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, has issued a fresh plea to anyone who has not had either their COVID-19 booster or the flu shot to get the jabs, saying the “double whammy” of both illnesses is putting a strain on health systems.
Professor Kelly told Sky News that, while the take up of a third COVID-19 dose had been high in older age groups and among people who were more vulnerable to severe disease, there was still around a third of people across Australia who had not had their booster.
“We’re actually getting good uptake in those [older] age groups but, as a population-wide estimate, it’s about 67 per cent of people who are eligible have had their third dose. We certainly want to be better than that,” he said.
“We now know that, with Omicron circulating, that a third dose is really important and so I’d really encourage, today, anyone who is eligible for a third dose to not hesitate and go and get a third dose.”
Last month, Australia led the world in per-capita COVID-19 infections, with Professor Kelly telling Channel Nine the rate of infections of both the virus and the flu was a clear sign that “winter is definitely with us”.
This month Australia became a world leader in COVID infections
With the election campaign just finished, a war raging in Ukraine and cost of living rising, COVID-19 has dropped off the radar for some Australians.
Professor Kelly put the lower uptake of the booster than the first and second doses down to a mix of reasons.
“People are less concerned about COVID than they were, say, this time last year, and that’s partly because of their own lived experience,” he said.
“As we know, most people who have COVID will only have a mild or moderate illness but there are people [who] can be more at risk of severe disease and they’re the ones that absolutely should be getting that maximum protection.
“I think the other thing is [that] many people this year have had COVID, so there is that gap that’s put in there about when you’ve had COVID, and when you can get your next dose [of vaccine].”
People who have recently had COVID-19 are recommended to wait at least three months before they get their next vaccination against the virus.
Professor Kelly said that, while it was already evident that the Omicron variant was capable of re-infecting people who had had other previous variants, a new sub-variant which is spreading on the east coast of Australia at the moment was proving even more transmissible.
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However, it is not just COVID-19 people needed to protect themselves against, he said, because cases of the flu are also on the rise.
Health authorities and experts warned the winter season would be the first where Australians had to deal with both COVID-19 circulating and a return of a more widespread flu after milder seasons during the first few years of the pandemic.
Professor Kelly said the combination of the two illnesses was putting a toll on the health system.
“It’s certainly a strain at the moment from flu and COVID, a double whammy, if you like, but also absenteeism of staff who are also who are also being affected,” he said.
“So that’s the challenge at the moment. As we often see in winter with flu, but having flu and COVID around does do that.”
Professor Kelly said people should also make sure they get the flu vaccine, particularly those in aged care, children under five and pregnant women.