Sunday, July 05, 2020

Silver lining: Flu cases plummeting

There has been a massive drop in the number of flu cases in Australia, thanks to COVID-19 social isolation measures and an increase in flu vaccines.

In the first five months of 2019 — a particularly severe flu season — the national total of laboratory-confirmed influenza cases reached 74,176.

But Immunisation Coalition data shows the number of cases in 2020 has plummeted since coronavirus lockdowns were introduced — from 20,032 cases in the first three months, to 504 in April and May.

Australian Medical Association (AMA) SA president Dr Chris Moy said the number of flu deaths prevented since the coronavirus pandemic began was probably "quite significant".

"It may have, up to this point, saved more people than it's actually killed, and certainly the response to COVID has actually saved a lot of people," he said.

"The only proviso to that is that it is possible that we may have actually delayed an [influenza] outbreak.

"But I think [the number] will still be less, because we have a far more highly immunised population this year than we have had in previous years."

Last year, there were over 900 influenza-linked deaths in Australia.

But until the end of last month, federal authorities had only been alerted to 36 "laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated deaths" in 2020, according to the Australian Influenza Surveillance Report.

Immunisation Coalition CEO Kim Sampson said that, in terms of overall case numbers, 2020 was tracking similarly to last year until the coronavirus pandemic hit.

"We were preparing ourselves for a very bad flu season once again," he said.

"Around three quarters of the way through March there was an announcement … to introduce restrictions on our movement and lockdown was introduced.

"We saw immediately a drop of in flu numbers."

Mr Sampson said it quickly became clear that there was a link, because of the impact changes in behaviour brought about by COVID-19 have had on the spread of other illnesses.

"We checked other respiratory diseases too, such as RSV [respiratory syncytial virus], and that had also significantly reduced, as had rhinovirus," he said.

'Record' vaccination uptake

The drop in influenza cases had previously been predicted, but the magnitude of the decline is "a phenomenon … that we've never seen before", Dr Moy said.

"The mechanism of spread of influenza is essentially the same as that of COVID, and that is droplet spread," he said.

"By applying the physical distancing, the restrictions … [have] closed down the transmission of influenza at the same time."

Dr Moy said a high vaccination uptake this year was potentially another factor in keeping flu rates low, and had contributed to a "level of herd immunity".

"We've had record numbers of vaccinations at an early stage, which has partly been due to the urgings of the providers and health authorities like ourselves," he said.

"We really did not want, early on, outbreaks of COVID and influenza happening at the same time."

While it is difficult to know exactly how many vaccines have been administered this year, the Australian Immunisation Register puts the number at more than 7.3 million.

At the end of last month, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced a record 18 million vaccinations would be made available during the 2020 season.

But Dr Moy warned against complacency, saying high vaccination rates early on could present problems down the track, and that a small number of people should consider speaking with their doctor about a booster shot.

"It may be that the peak effect of the vaccinations may actually occur a little bit too early," he said.

"If influenza does get going at some stage, the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine for some individuals may start to peter out later in the year."


Canberra has been coronavirus free for almost a month, and sewage samples confirm no hidden

Canberra has been free of 'known' cases of COVID-19 for some time — but it was the 'unknown' cases, potentially hiding within the community, that had authorities and many in the community worried.

Now, researchers from the Australian National University can confirm they had nothing to fear.

The ACT's sewage has been regularly tested for the last two months, with researchers looking for traces of SARS-CoV-2 within Canberra's waste.

Throughout all of May they did not find a single trace of the virus, suggesting it was entirely absent from the community.

June's results are still pending.

It adds an extra layer of confidence to the message from health authorities, that the virus is firmly under control — or in fact, non-existent — in the ACT


Australia set to ease virus visa hardship for foreign students

Australia appears set to address international students’ visa gripes just as a resurgence of coronavirus cases on both sides of the Tasman Sea threatens to neutralise Antipodean universities’ upper hand in the race to revive student flows.

Times Higher Education understands that the Australian government may announce new visa arrangements next week, bringing rules for foreign students more in line with those in competitor countries.

The plans are expected to include fee waivers for students forced to extend their stay in Australia because of the pandemic, and to clarify whether online classes count towards the period of study required to qualify for post-course work rights.

This would coincide with a retreat from plans to fly in select groups of international students on a trial basis, in New Zealand as well as Australia. In New Zealand, the education minister, Chris Hipkins, has ruled out a return of overseas students in July or August.

In early May, Mr Hipkins encouraged universities to produce a “concrete proposal” for international students to be readmitted into the country, initially under carefully managed quarantine. But in a late June letter to representative body Isana New Zealand, he scuttled any hope of this happening in time for the start of the second semester.

“International students remain a priority group in the government’s planning for any managed border entry arrangements,” he wrote. But he warned that there were “many details to be worked through, including quarantine and isolation arrangements, monitoring processes and how the costs can be shared by those arriving”.

New Zealand declared itself coronavirus free less than a month ago, arousing optimism that it could boost its share of international students on the back of its successful pandemic management.

But nerves emerged about its ability to safely manage the entry of people from Covid-19 hotspots, particularly when two returnees from the UK tested positive for the disease after being released from quarantine for compassionate reasons.

Similar doubts have surfaced in Australia, after sloppy management of hotel-based quarantine led to a coronavirus outbreak in Melbourne and forced the Victorian government to put 36 suburbs back under lockdown.

This has raised doubts over plans to fly in foreign students – particularly a scheme to jet in some 800 students to Adelaide.

The federal government has said that it will approve such plans only in states that allow untrammelled travel from interstate. South Australia has now scrapped plans to open its borders to Victorians in mid-July.

Ironically, New Zealand and Australia are stepping back from schemes to bring in international students just as universities in northern hemisphere competitor countries – where the coronavirus is far more prevalent – pursue plans of their own.

With Australian educators struggling to harness the country’s mostly successful pandemic management to their advantage, the release of the long-awaited student visa flexibility package will be welcome news.

The International Education Association of Australia said such concessions had been a long time coming. “After three and a half months of advocacy, education providers are frustrated at delays but hopeful that Australia will be in a more competitive position soon,” said chief executive Phil Honeywood.

The UK has increased the competitive pressure, announcing that it will allow international doctoral students to stay for three years after they graduate. However, Australia still trumps the UK on this measure, granting foreign PhD graduates up to four years’ post-study work rights.


Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk says police are hunting for Victorians being smuggled over the Queensland border in trucks

As Queensland reported another day without any new coronavirus infections, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has confirmed police are concerned about Victorians being smuggled in trucks over the state’s border.

Ms Palaszczuk told reporters this afternoon she’d received an operational briefing from the Queensland Police Commissioner and the state’s disaster co-ordinator regarding the people-smuggling fears.

“They do have some concerns that that practice could be in place,” Ms Palaszczuk said.

“So what we say to everyone out there is, if you are thinking about doing it, don’t do it. You will be hit with a fine. Trucks will also be randomly stopped, and if you are a truck driver participating in this you will also get fined as well.”

Queensland’s state disaster co-ordinator, Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski, also warned “random” checks on freight and heavy vehicles will now be carried out at the border to ensure they weren’t smuggling in Victorians.

“Previously we’ve seen other heavy freight (and) that type of thing get waved through,” he said.

“They will still be able to do that but we will be randomly intercepting them to make sure that there are...not people getting through there that shouldn’t.

“We’ve already had people try and test the system all the way through, so we’re just going to make it really certain that people aren't doing that.”

From midday, any person (whether a Queensland resident or non-Queensland resident) who has been in any local government area in Victoria will be forced into mandatory hotel quarantine, for a minimum of 14 days, at their own expense.

Flights were booked out yesterday and today as Queenslanders raced to get back home.

“We’re calling on Queenslanders still there to come home as soon as possible. It’s safer here – we’ve had one case in almost two weeks and that was acquired overseas,” Deputy Premier and Health Minister Steven Miles told reporters yesterday.

“We just can’t risk removing border restrictions for people coming from areas of Victoria right now. These are very big concerns,” Ms Palaszczuk said on Tuesday.


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

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