Will COVID-19 ruin Christmas? Why it’s now harder to predict the pandemic’s future

Australia is now in the midst of a new COVID-19 wave.

Key points:

  • Experts say it’s risky to make predictions about COVID-19 based on other countries
  • Doctors say an increase in cases will put pressure on the healthcare system
  • Aged care residents and workers are also nervous about COVID-19 ahead of Christmas

One which the Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, predicts will be shorter and sharper than those of the past.

“If it ends up being similar to Singapore, and I believe it will, then it should peak soon and drop quickly,” Professor Kelly said this week.

Singapore’s wave was dominated by the XBB strain which experts say is more likely to evade vaccines and natural immunity from a previous COVID-19 infection.

However, one health expert thinks it’s risky to read too much into what’s happened overseas.

“The waves of COVID are not happening the same way in every place,” said Nancy Baxter, the head of the University of Melbourne’s School Of Population And Global Health.

“It’s not like it was before when you would have Delta in India, then the UK, and you could see it passing through the world and eventually it would come to Australia.”

There are more variants around now, as well as different levels of immunity in other countries based on vaccine coverage and previous COVID-19 infections.

This means COVID-19 waves are now “coming through in different ways in different places”, Professor Baxter said.

She also said Singapore was a “much different” place to Australia.

“There’s … more mask-wearing, rule-following without there having to be laws.”

COVID-19 isn’t over, doctors say

An uptick in cases will undoubtedly put increased pressure on the health sector.

“What this wave has shown us is that as much as we would love COVID to be over, it definitely isn’t,” Australian Medical Association Vice President Danielle McMullen said.

“We need to take significant steps in the way we practice medicine in hospitals and other healthcare settings to make sure that we’re keeping people safe.”

Dr McMullen said the impact on hospitals and the healthcare system often lagged a few weeks behind infection spikes.

“So, we still have concerns there’ll be significant impacts from this wave into the holiday season,” she said.

That will coincide with the removal of extra COVID-related federal funding for public hospitals at the end of the year.

“The fact the 50/50 hospital funding split and that extra COVID support to hospitals is due to end at the end of the year is just ludicrous,” Dr McMullen said.

“It doesn’t match the extra effort hospitals are still waiting to go through to make sure that they’re looking after people both with COVID and with other non-COVID illnesses.”

Do you know more about this story? Email Specialist.Team@abc.net.au.

Federal health minister Mark Butler wasn’t available for an interview but has confirmed the extra funding to states won’t be continued past December, though he appeared to leave the door open to other potential funding changes.

“There are a range of other COVID arrangements, including in cooperation with state public health systems, as well as aged care and primary care that we’re going through in a measured way,” Mr Butler said earlier.

“We’ll have more to say about that in the near future.”

Fears in aged care ahead of Christmas

Also watching the new wave with trepidation are aged care residents and the people who care for them, according to Carolyn Smith, aged care director of the United Workers Union.

She said aged care workers across Australia were “watching the numbers with a real sense of dread”.

“I’ve been here before, and particularly as we head into Christmas,” Ms Smith said.

Aged care workers are dealing with more people who are unwell and dying from COVID-19, as well as facing uncertainty about the future, she said.

“Are we going to have Christmas in lockdown? Will people be able to see their loved ones?”

“It’s going to be a tough few months.”

Read more about the spread of COVID-19:

  • Are you a NOVID? About a third of us have never had COVID-19, this might be why
  • Will Queensland’s new COVID-19 wave affect Christmas? Here’s what you need to know
  • Fifth COVID-19 vaccine dose not being recommended for most, health department says

In the absence of public health mandates, aged care advocates want the public to consider the lives of those who are frail or at risk.

“The further COVID spreads in the community, the more we see the impact in aged care,” Ms Smith said.

Getting COVID-19 vaccinations up-to-date and wearing masks in public helped protect the most vulnerable, she said.