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SA delays lifting restrictions after recording another 688 cases

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UPDATED | The Marshall Government’s plan to ease COVID restrictions on December 28 has been postponed until next year and South Australians have been urged to work from home for the next month in a bid to stop a surge in Omicron infections after another 688 COVID-19 cases were recorded today.

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Premier Steven Marshall told reporters a short time ago that another 688 cases have been recorded in South Australia today, on top of 484 yesterday, and that gene sequencing had revealed that 70 per cent of the state’s new cases are the Omicron variant.

SA cases have surged since the 194 recorded on Wednesday, 154 on Tuesday and 105 on Monday. Since SA opened its borders on November 23, just under 2000 cases have been recorded.

Another person was taken to hospital with the virus overnight, while a man in his 30s remains in a Royal Adelaide Hospital intensive care unit on a ventilator.

Eight people in South Australia are currently hospitalised with COVID-19, including two children, two men in their 50s and 60s, two women in their 90s and one woman in her 30s.

Of the eight people in hospital, four have had two doses of a vaccine, one is partially vaccinated while three are unvaccinated, according to SA Health.

“If we don’t take action, there is going to be a significant problem for our country – it will overwhelm our health system,” Marshall told reporters today.

“We’ve got one chance to slow the spread of the Omicron cases … we know that this is not the message people want to hear today.”

Marshall said the State Government would be “encouraging people to work from home if possible” for the next four weeks.

He also announced that South Australia’s plan to ease a raft of internal restrictions on dancing, licensed venues, nightclubs and home gatherings would be delayed.

“We did plan to lift restrictions on the 28th, that has now been postponed into the new year,” Marshall said.

“There is just no way at this point when we are very concerned about a very steep increase in new cases here in South Australia, right around the country, right around the world, that we can be easing restrictions.”

It comes only a week after the State Government announced that restrictions would ease on December 28 when South Australia was projected to hit 90 per cent double dose vaccination for over-12s.

Chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier said there could be further changes to restrictions depending on case numbers.

“We already have a range of these restrictions in our community, we have a mandate on masks, we have a density requirement, we are not able to stand up and drink and dance,” she said.

“Over the next 24 to 48 hours we’ll be watching our cases very closely and we may be making further changes as necessary.”

She conceded that the state’s case numbers are “higher than we expected at this point in time”.

Marshall said 50 per cent of the 484 cases recorded on Thursday were unvaccinated.

“When you consider around 90 per cent of those 12 and over in South Australia are fully vaccinated, we can see it’s a massive over representation on those people who are contracting the disease who are not fully vaccinated,” he said.

“I think it’s fair to say that we are very concerned we can see those numbers escalating in our state, we are not going to be immune from it.”

As of Thursday, 87.3 per cent of South Australians over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated, while 92.2 per cent have received at least one dose.

The vaccination status of 631 of today’s 688 new cases is unknown to SA health, while 45 are fully vaccinated and 12 are unvaccinated.

The source of 593 cases is under investigation, while 66 acquired their infection locally from a known source along with 24 others from an unknown local source.

The delayed restrictions lift will also mean the home gatherings cap will remain at 30 indefinitely.

Marshall urged South Australians to adhere to the cap over the Christmas period.

“We are asking people as much as possible to conduct their Christmas celebrations in a COVID safe way,” he said.

“We have caps in place on households at the moment of 30 and we’re asking people to strictly adhere to those arrangements.”

Casual contact testing requirement removed

People who are deemed casual contacts of COVID-19 cases will no longer be required to come forward for three PCR tests, in the latest bid to ease pressure on the state’s testing clinics.

Those who attended a casual contact exposure site will now only have to monitor for symptoms, Spurrier announced today.

Previously, casual contacts had to come forward for tests on day one, six and 13 and quarantine until they received their first negative test.

Spurrier said the decision followed a review of the state’s testing requirements.

“We’re very aware that as our numbers increase in our state, our testing is going to need to be focused on the most critical part of our response, and that’s people with symptoms,” she said.

She also said vaccinated people who are deemed close contacts will only need to come forward for a day one and six test, while unvaccinated close contacts only need to come forward for a day one and 13 test.

Testing requirements for interstate travellers were removed on Tuesday, although SA Health continues to report record testing numbers in excess of 20,000 a day.

‘Massive’ SA booster program to begin on Boxing Day

South Australia’s vaccination clinics will open on Boxing Day for people to receive a third shot of a vaccine, including those who have had two AstraZeneca jabs.

It comes after federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced today that from Tuesday, January 4, eligibility for boosters will be brought forward to four months after the second dose, down from five months currently.

Then from Monday, January 31, people who have had two doses can get their booster after three months.

Around 7.5 million Australians will be eligible for their booster shot come January 4 and this will then jump to 16 million at the end of the month once the timeframe is dropped to three months.

Hunt said states and territories will be able to move ahead of schedule and offer boosters under the shortened eligibility criteria if they are in a position to do so.

Marshall said SA Health was now “ramping up” its vaccination clinics to prepare for a “massive booster program”.

“We will from the 26th of December be making sure that our mass vaccination clinic north, south and central will be available to make sure all of those people who are eligible can go and get those booster shots,” he said.

“In addition to that, we make the additional availability to those people who have had two shots of the AstraZeneca, and those people who are working in the front line in our aged care sector, our health care sector or the disability sector who would normally become eligible on the 4th of January.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to bring forward as many of those booster jabs into people’s arms because we know that this is going to slow down the spread of Omicron in South Australia.”

Spurrier said she was “very very pleased” the state’s booster program would be starting early.

“The group … that I’m also particularly concerned about are those who just had the two doses of the AZ vaccine,” she said.

“We know that’s not sufficient with Omicron.

“We really want to encourage those people to come in and get Pfizer and Moderna as a priority.”

Pharmacies ‘caught off guard’ by rapid test approval

It comes after the State Government moved late on Thursday to legalise the sale of rapid antigen tests in South Australian pharmacies and supermarkets – only hours after the Premier declared that that a decision on their public use was still days away.

The “late notice” of the change in legal direction has prompted criticism from the Pharmacy Guild of Australia.

SA Branch President Nick Panayiaris said he was “caught off guard” by the change and highlighted that pharmacies across the state are already moving to introduce purchase limits on the product due to high demand and low stock.

“My initial reaction was a bit gobsmacked because we had provided information to SA Health around the availability [of rapid antigen tests] in community pharmacies that there was very limited stock if any,” he said.

“Most pharmacies weren’t allowed to acquire or procure any stock under the previous direction because they weren’t allowed to purchase from the wholesaler.

“There was no way of getting stock in and holding stock until that direction changed.”

Panayiaris said the State Government had “set up an expectation that these tests will be available from today, when clearly they knew they weren’t going to be available and stocks were going to be limited”.

“I’ve already had members calling me, they’ve had line ups outside their pharmacies today only to tell [customers] they haven’t got any,” he said.

“Anxiety levels are up, people are a little bit on edge and frustrated … members are really really worried about the fact that people will take it out on staff, and we just implore people to be patient.

“This isn’t our fault, we’ll try and obviously get these tests in as soon as we can, but unfortunately with this short notice issue, many pharmacies just will not have stock until probably late next week.”

Marshall defended the short timeframe, saying the State Government “had been flagging that this decision was imminent”.

“It’s always very difficult to provide that notice, but I think most people knew that we were heading in that direction,” he said.

“People need to be a little bit patient, they’ll come in over the coming days.”

Long testing queues return

Testing queues at Victoria Park on Tuesday. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Wait times for testing again blew out overnight, with the Victoria Park drive through clinic reporting queues of more than seven hours at 10am this morning.

SA Health also reported wait times of more than six hours at the Aldinga testing clinic and five hours at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

Wait times at regional testing centres appear to have eased, however, with Mount Gambier, Pinnaroo and Bordertown reporting queues of less than an hour.

Spurrier today apologised for an IT issue which saw the booking website for testing crash overnight.

“Unfortunately, for whatever reason, that system was down last night,” she told ABC Radio this morning.

“It’s been rectified, but I would like to apologise the people of South Australia who’ve spent a lot of time lining up overnight.”

Spurrier also said test result turnaround times were increasing given the number of cases in the state.

SA Health reported 25,175 tests yesterday – the highest number this year despite the removal of day one and six testing requirements for interstate travellers.

“As we’ve had more testing in South Australia with our increasing numbers, the turnaround time has been increasing,” Spurrier said.

“We’re watching that very very carefully.

“Our lab will be working very very hard, there’ll be many people who’ll be up overnight processing those swabs to make sure we can get a really quick turnaround.”

-With AAP

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