Healthcare workers express concerns over Covid ‘close contact’ definitions

Testing clinics across eastern Australia were under extreme pressure during the festive season, with lines up two eight hours long. Photo: Kgbo/Wikimedia Commons, published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.

By TILEAH DOBSON          

Sweeping new changes concerning the ongoing pandemic were brought in across Australia as the world rang in the New Year. Federal leaders met with their state and territory counterparts in the last week of December, in order to come to a uniform decision about the definition of a close contact.

This came after the Omicron variant swept through eastern Australia, with cases rising at alarming rates. Prime Minister Scott Morrison explained what the new changes were in a statement.

“Except in exceptional circumstances, a close contact is a household contact or ‘household-like’ of a confirmed case only. A household contact is someone who lives with a case or has spent more than four hours with them in a house, accommodation or care facility setting,” Morrison said.

“You are only a close contact if you are effectively living with someone or have been in an accommodation setting for more than four hours with someone who has actually got Covid – not someone who is in contact with someone who has had Covid.”

These changes were made in an effort to ease the heavy strain on PCR testing sites, with long lines that had residents waiting in excess of eight hours and test results taking over seventy-two hours to come in.

However, this new definition hasn’t been the ‘Band-Aid’ to the situation, as the government had hoped.

The federal government has encouraged Australians to only seek PCR tests if they are showing symptoms, in an effort to ease the long lines residents have endured. Photo: Lachlan Dobson/Facebook.

Those in the medical and health sectors are speaking out against the new definition, calling it “reckless” and “confusing for all”.

In series of Twitter posts, President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Dr Omar Khorshid, has remarked that the government’s move will worsen the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Omicron spreads more easily than any other variant. It doesn’t care if you are a family member, a coworker, a drinker in the pub or breathing the same air in a lift. Isolating close contacts slows spread. Isolating less people means faster spread,” Khorshid said.

“Redefining close contacts will simply accelerate the outbreak. I don’t think you could call the NSW experiment a success yet. Let’s not give up on slowing the spread. Vaccine, testing and public health measures have worked so far and remain the best option for living with Covid.”

Former AMA President, Dr Kerryn Phelps, has also raised her growing concerns about the new rules.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has been deliberately allowed to out of control by government decisions to remove safeguards, knowing what the outcome will be,” Phelps said.

“Healthcare workers have warned us that hospitals have already become overwhelmed. Our governments seem to have abrogated all responsibility for prevention.”

Dr Kerryn Phelps (left), pictured with partner Jackie Stricker-Phelps, has called out the government for recklessly encouraging the spread of Omicron. Photo: Dr Kerryn Phelps/Facebook.

Experienced registered nurse Jacinta Hoolahan spoke with the Sentinel about the new close contact definition.

“Although I understand why the definition of a close contact is continually changing, I feel as though the new definition isn’t ideal and is adding to the increasing spread of Covid,” the Sydney-based nurse said.

“I think the current strain on [NSW Health Pathology] is huge and whilst I understand changing the definition of a close contacts is aimed at taking the pressure off testing sites, the differing advice is also leading to an increase in the spread of Covid, as guidelines are almost impossible to follow,” she said.

“The difference this time, however, is that staff are exempt for a lot of the rules the public face, which is leading to increased pressure on us. I don’t feel comfortable going to work after being directly exposed to Covid, out of fear for potentially passing it onto my patient, despite all of the precautions we have in place.”

In the 24 hours to 8pm last night, NSW recorded another 34,994 new Covid-19 infections – the second-highest daily case load since the pandemic began.

A fully vaccinated man in his 20s with no known underlying health conditions was among six Covid-19 deaths in the state yesterday, while NSW Health said 1,609 people were currently in NSW hospitals with the virus (up from 1,491 the day before) and 131 were in intensive care (up from 119).

This morning, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet – who has been criticised for his fervent anti-lockdown stance and for removing mask mandates for a period during December – announced that elective surgery could be paused amidst the rising hospitalisation rates.

“During the Delta outbreak, and the year before, we suspended elective surgery for a period of time,” he told Sydney radio station, 2GB.

“That is certainly something we are looking at now.”

Previously, Perrottet claimed that “the health system remains strong” despite the growing outbreak.

Tileah Dobson is the news editor of the Sydney Sentinel.