Western Australia has recorded 65 new COVID-19 cases as hospitals pause some elective surgeries in anticipation of a steep rise in infections.
Thirteen of the cases announced on Tuesday were locally acquired, with the majority linked to an influx of interstate arrivals over the weekend.
Premier Mark McGowan conceded it was likely there were still infections going undetected in the community, despite improved test numbers.
From February 28, a pause on booking non-urgent category two and three elective surgery procedures will come into effect.
The freeze, which will last between six and eight weeks, is designed to help hospitals manage an expected surge in COVID patients.
“It’s in preparation for the growth in cases to ensure that our hospital system is ready for that,” Mr McGowan told reporters.
“Our vaccination rate and our increasing third dose will significantly reduce the health impacts on the West Australian public. But people will still get sick, so we need to provide capacity in the hospitals for those people.”
The latest WA Health report showed 29,475 people were already waiting for elective surgery.
Opposition health spokeswoman Libby Mettam said the government had been too slow to prepare the hospital system.
“The people of WA deserve better from a government that claims to be keeping them safe,” she said.
The quarantine period for infected people and their close contacts has been halved to seven days under a change that came into effect overnight.
Close contacts must return a negative rapid antigen test before leaving quarantine.
The new policy also applies to anyone currently in self-quarantine, including about 12,000 people who arrived over the weekend under a softening of hard border rules.
Mr McGowan has given no indication of when the state will fully reopen.
But the easing of quarantine rules and entry requirements, along with a rapidly rising third-dose vaccination rate, suggests the reopening is not far away.
WA’s booster rate is nearing 46 per cent and is on course to be well above 80 per cent by early-March if the current take-up is sustained.
“Eventually we’ll get international tourists coming back, at some point in the future,” the premier said.
“We’ve just got to make sure we get our third dose vaccination levels up because that will actually preserve lives.”
In written advice to the premier last month, Chief Health Officer Andy Robertson said the government would need to weigh up overall booster coverage against the waning of protection among more vulnerable people from around the end of March.
Dr Robertson added that hospital bed occupancy was typically at its best between February and April.
He also warned of the potential impact on the health system if WA’s Omicron outbreak were to peak during the winter flu season.
Another key consideration is health worker shortages which Dr Robertson said were unlikely to be resolved until borders reopened.
In his latest advice to the premier, the chief health officer said changes to quarantine periods would highlight the benefits of getting vaccinated and promote confidence that WA is “moving towards a transition to living with COVID”.
Emergency services were meanwhile called on Tuesday to the premier’s electorate office in Rockingham, south of Perth, after a suspicious package was found.
A WA Police spokesman said it was a precautionary response.
Mr McGowan last year revealed he and his staff had received death threats over his government’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate policies, prompting the temporary closure of his electorate office.
His personal security has since been increased.