State health authorities are hopeful much-needed relief is looming for hospitals and health staff battered by the brutal Omicron COVID outbreak – even as the country reported its deadliest day of the pandemic yet.
There were 98 virus deaths reported across the country in the previous 24 hours – 39 in Victoria, 35 in NSW, 18 in Queensland, five in South Australia and one in the ACT.
NSW also announced 35 additional deaths in aged-care facilities during January, taking the combined total for Friday to 133. It comes a week after the previous highest 24-hour death toll, 80 reported last Friday.
The bleak tally came with a warning that, even with hospitalisations beginning to stabilise, the death toll from the COVID outbreak that has swept the country might keep rising for weeks.
“As we have seen during the two years of this pandemic … the numbers [of fatalities] stay higher for a longer period,” chief nursing and midwifery officer Professor Alison McMillan said on Friday.
But there are some optimistic signs. In NSW, where there have been 604 COVID deaths since January 1, including 207 in aged care, Premier Dominic Perrottet pointed to pleasing signs the strain on the hospital system might soon ease.
Hospitalisations in NSW have plateaued around 2750 (2737 on Friday) while intensive care patients remain below 200, despite an 8 per cent increase since Wednesday.
About 3700 health workers are in isolation, down from 6000 a few weeks ago.
“But we are moving through the next phase,” Mr Perrottet said.
NSW Health deputy secretary Susan Pearce said a greater decline in hospital numbers was expected next week.
“They might not follow a lovely curve, and it may be a bit lumpy but we do expect that in the coming week we will start to see some declines,” she said.
However, Mr Perrottet warned that – compared to the Alpha and Delta waves, when lockdowns brought dramatic drops in case numbers – the current strategy to live with the virus meant “when mobility increases, cases will increase alongside that”.
“Let’s be frank: Australia sleeps up to Australia Day and then … gets moving,” he said.
“So … we expect cases to increase.”
In Victoria, Friday’s death toll was the state’s highest since its second wave in 2020, when 59 fatalities were reported on September 4, 2020.
Health Minister Martin Foley described it as “a significant loss”.
“Our thoughts, of course, are with those 39 families, those 39 groups of friends,” he said.
Victoria has 101,605 active cases (well down from its peak of nearly 250,000). Hospitalisations with the virus have fallen by 69 to 988 patients, down from 1057 on Thursday.
There are 114 people in intensive care, a decrease of three, with 40 of those on a ventilator.
Mr Foley said Victoria’s outbreak “seems to have stabilised” and the state’s hospital services, which are subject to a code brown alert, would be turned back on once it was safe to do so.
“We’ve seen almost 40 people pass away in the most recent reporting period. This is a really significant challenge for our healthcare system,” he said.
“Our hospitals, our GPs, our pharmacists are all under pressure like never before. When it’s safe to do so, we will turn the system back on.”
In Queensland, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Friday’s tally of 18 fatalities included one person in their 30s who was unvaccinated, and 12 people in aged care.
It is the highest daily death rate in the state yet, and came on the second anniversary of Queensland’s first COVID case.
“This has been going now for two years and it doesn’t make it any easier … coming here to report these tragedies,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
She released modelling showing the “worst case scenario” predicted under the Omicron wave. It showed 5000 hospital beds could have been needed in the worst case, and 3000 under the “most likely” scenario.
“What we’re reporting at the moment is under 1000,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
“We were planning for the worst case scenario and it was quite freighting at the time.”
For intensive care, 500 beds could have been needed under the worst case scenario.
There are 818 people in Queensland hospitals with the virus, 54 of whom are in intensive care.
Admissions have been dropping in Queensland, predominantly because of falls on the Gold Coast, chief health officer John Gerrard said.
“We haven’t yet begun to see a clear fall in the rest of Queensland,” he said, describing the situation across the state as stable.
While the modelling was good news, Dr Gerrard said it was not yet time to celebrate, and the better outcomes were partially because of people doing the right thing.
However, the outlook is less bright in the Northern Territory. Its COVID hospitalisations jumped 10 to a record 105 on Friday.
The NT reported 940 more infections on Friday. It is managing 4200 active cases, the majority in Darwin and Palmerston.
The community of Ampilatwatja in central Australia was also sent into a 48-hour lockdown on Friday after cases recorded there, Chief Minister Michael Gunner said.
He said the community had a very low vaccination rate.