OzSAGE, a multi-disciplinary network of Australian experts, is today sounding the alarm on the number of daily deaths due to COVID-19 in Australia. With COVID cases still increasing and winter rapidly approaching, Australia must take protective action to prevent deaths and disability. Hospitalisations remain high, with over 3,000 people admitted nationwide. This has resulted in overcrowded emergency departments and contributed to ambulance ramping and unacceptable ambulance response times, adversely affecting the provision of care for other health conditions. Higher COVID case numbers are leading to increased hospitalisation, suffering and death.
This is the first time an infectious disease has been a leading cause of death in modern history.
Over 70% of the more than 7,926 reported deaths from COVID in Australia to date have occurred in 2022 – and it’s still only May. The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that, of the deaths that occurred up to 30 April 2022, COVID-19 was the underlying cause of death 89.8% of the time – that is, the overwhelming majority of deaths were from COVID, not with COVID.
It is important to note that these deaths were not limited to elderly Australians but include 316 people aged 20 to 59 years, and 13 deaths in children and adolescents.. During Australia’s first wave, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare calculated that an average of 8-9 years of life were lost per person dying of COVID.
Deaths per day have been climbing, and currently sit at over 50 deaths per day. We are on track to reach approximately 15,000 to 18,000 deaths from COVID in 2022 – up to sixteen times the annual road toll (which was 1,127 in 2021) and six times the deaths from the worst recent flu season (3,024 deaths in 2017).
As of 8 May, there have been at least 120 deaths due to COVID amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Almost all these deaths occurred this year. While this is less than 2% of deaths nationally, when we look at age-specific rates, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 2-3 times more likely to end up in ICU or to die from COVID than non- Aboriginal Australians of the same age.
Our previous OzSAGE document – released February 2022 (Statement on Deaths in Australia from Covid-19) – called for care and respect for all deaths due to COVID-19, for transparent disclosure of data on mortality, and for the causes of death to be discussed with scientific authenticity and integrity.
There is a significant misconception in the general community that once a person has had COVID, they are ‘immune’. But this is not the case. The prospect of re-infection looms large for all Australians. A significant drop in life expectancy has been noted in other countries since the beginning of the pandemic. OzSAGE’s recommendations are aimed at reducing the impact of COVID in Australia, which currently has one of the highest case rates in the world.
OzSAGE recommends all governments immediately respond by:
PUBLIC HEALTH EDUCATION
- Launching a concerted public health campaign to educate the community on what individuals can do to help protect themselves from infection, with a focus on the airborne nature of COVID-19. (Similar to the campaigns for skin cancer, road deaths, and smoking.) • Communicating the need for mask-wearing in all settings where transmission is likely to occur, such as indoor venues with poor ventilation.
- Making P2/N95 respirators (high-quality masks) freely available to the community with a public campaign on their use.
IMPROVING VACCINE ACCESS
- Renewing efforts to increase third and fourth dose rates, and broadening eligibility for fourth doses.
SAFE INDOOR AIR: VENTILATION/FILTRATION
- Championing and legislating standards for safe indoor air through ventilation and filtration.
- Educating and providing toolkits for ventilation assessments (e.g. CO2 monitoring).
- Offering grants to improve ventilation infrastructure, similar to the Victorian Government’s Small Business Ventilation Program (Ventilation Rebate).
- Developing detailed plans to guarantee healthy air quality, especially in high-risk places such as aged and residential care facilities.
- Providing free and easily accessible PCR testing and free rapid antigen test kits to households.
- Transparently reporting cases, hospitalisations and deaths from COVID.
IMPROVING ACCESS TO HEALTHCARE
- Developing and improving healthcare protocols and pathways, access and provision, and educating the public and doctors about effective treatments such as antivirals and budesonide.
- Improving access to primary care for treatment, and advertising clear alternate pathways to treatment, for those living in areas of GP shortage or with limited financial means.
PREVENTING FURTHER OUTBREAKS
- Creating teams including an Occupational Physician, Occupational Nurse, and Occupational Hygienist in each state/territory to review residential care facilities’ controls/protections alongside Public Health and advise on practical adjustments to prevent future outbreaks. Similar work should be done for schools and other organisations.
- Supporting the efforts of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) and other community-controlled organisations to mitigate the effects of COVID in all communities.
Both State and Federal Governments have no time to lose. On average some 50 people a day are dying from COVID. That’s one person every 30 minutes. We will see tens of thousands more suffering from long COVID. Our health systems, schools and businesses are already struggling and the situation will get a lot worse if we do not act.Professor Nancy Baxter
It is disappointing that GPs have not been provided guidelines on rapid treatments for COVID in the community. Simple, proven, available measures like the asthma preventer inhaler budesonide may prevent severe complications, but there are no guidelines for community treatment. There are two effective antivirals which can reduce hospitalisation rates and one is widely prescribed in other countries, but access is severely restricted here. Living with COVID also brings with it a responsibility to provide access to effective treatments. We will regret not doing so, with a massive burden of chronic illness that will follow, much of which, along with deaths, could be averted by early use of antivirals and other treatments.Professor Raina MacIntyre
The theft of precious years of life by COVID-19 for residents in residential care facilities is an overriding worry and concern for them, families, friends and staff. Simple practical protections including third and fourth dose vaccination, safe indoor air and high-quality masks (called P2/N95 respirators) cut the number and extent of outbreaks, preserving the lives of residents and preventing staff attrition.Dr Karina Powers, Occupational and Environmental Physician
High quality masks work. We have seen the impact of their removal both internationally and in Australia. Quality masks work regardless of the variant – these are physical barriers to the virus that offer significant protection when used properly.Ms Kate Cole, OAM, Occupational Hygienist
It is urgent for the Commonwealth Government to introduce regulations and provide funding to ensure that aged care facilities have clean, safe air.
Many of these deaths are avoidable, but not if we continue to allow the virus to spread unchecked through our community.Professor Marc Tennant
Australia’s experiment of living with COVID-19 has failed. The virus has shown us it’s nothing like the flu. We need to change direction and aim for a low COVID future with a vaccines-plus-ventilation strategy.Dr Zoë Hyde
The approach to under-served communities and the ongoing crisis in remote First Nations communities is a national disgrace. It’s time for everyone to recognize this crisis for what it is – and to realise that disparate health care becomes more so in this crisis.Professor Lisa Jackson-Pulver
There are so many co-benefits to improving and paying attention to indoor air quality including increases in productivity and cognitive function/decision making ability and a reduction in absenteeism. Pre-pandemic the cost of poor indoor air was estimated for Australia at $12B per year – I think we are only now appreciating that this is a significant underestimate when our indoor spaces are challenged with a pandemic.Associate Professor Robyn Schofield, University of Melbourne, Associate Dean Environment and Sustainability