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Confusion over SA close contact rule ahead of New Year celebrations

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UPDATED | South Australians who spend more than 15 minutes face-to-face with a COVID-positive case will still be deemed a close contact, chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier says – despite yesterday’s national agreement to change the definition to four hours.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Thursday that five states – including South Australia – had agreed to narrow the definition of close contact to only include household contacts who spend more than four hours with a COVID-positive case, in a bid to reduce the number of people in quarantine and reduce demand on swamped testing sites.

“Close contacts will be defined, except in exceptional circumstances, as those who usually live with or who have stayed in the same household for more than four hours as a case during their infectious period,” Morrison told reporters after national cabinet on Thursday.

But Spurrier said this morning the definition would be expanded in South Australia to include people who spend more than 15 minutes face to face with a COVID-positive case in a high-risk, occupational or hospitality setting.

“Definitely as the prime minister flagged it’s household contacts, and we’ve just extended that to be household-like contacts,” she told ABC Radio on Friday.

Asked whether South Australia would adopt the four-hour close contact rule, Spurrier said: “No we’re not using that four hour [measurement], that’s not something we discussed at AHPPC (Australian Health Protection Principal Committee).”

“I guess here in South Australia we’ve got our own way of doing our contact tracing,” she said.

“In terms of people outside of the household or your household-like contacts, it has to have been more than 15 minutes of face-to-face contact in those other sorts of sites.

“We will have this out in a more comprehensive matrix because what we are expecting is that people will be able to do some of this contact tracing themselves.”

SA Health said today that close contacts would continue to include those who have been in a setting “where there has been significant transmission of COVID-19 and there has been greater than 15 minutes face-to-face contact”.

The definition will also include those who have been in “high-risk communities/setting/workplaces where someone has tested positive to COVID-19 and there has been greater than 15 minutes of face-to-face contact”.

Spurrier said SA Health would continue to publicly list locations where there has been significant community transmission and also alert potential close contacts through QR code data.

“What the general premise is that we’re not worrying about strangers who you might have transient contact with,” she said.

“We’re basically trying to focus on people’s social groups, so that’s your households or household-like contacts or intimate partners, but beyond that, it might be the group that you are with at work.

“And then we’re also looking at transmission sites, so if we see a large number of cases from a particular venue or a particular setting … then that will be called out for close contacts.”

Spurrier’s comments came after Premier Steven Marshall told reporters after yesterday’s national cabinet meeting that South Australia had agreed to “very significantly narrow” the definition of close contacts.

“This will essentially be people who are household or intimate contacts with a positive case,” he said.

“Each state will look at exceptions or exceptional circumstances in their state, for example, in more vulnerable communities and also where there is a known significant transmission event.”

“We might flex up the definition of close contacts … if we know there have been multiple or a larger number of new cases or community transmission within an individual workplace.

“But by and large, we’re now significantly narrowing this down.”

Marshall today rejected suggestions South Australia had strayed away from the national cabinet advice.

“In South Australia now you’re a close contact if you’re a household or intimate partner, or those two exceptional circumstances in South Australia if it is related to a vulnerable cohort, for example an aged care facility or Aboriginal community where there’s no logic in narrowing that [definition] down because those two communities are more likely of higher-level illness,”

“The other one, of course, is where we do have an identified transmission site.

“In addition to that, Professor Spurrier has put some guidelines out with regards to the transmission of this disease, but we’re not going to be directing people as close contacts.

“We don’t have the capacity to be doing that for this stage of the disease.

“But people do need to be aware that if they’re out dining with someone who is a positive case for four or five hours, it doesn’t really matter if you’re living with them or not, you are going to be more vulnerable.

“So it’s important for people to take that protection, whether it’s isolating themselves, getting a test or simply monitoring themselves for symptoms.”

According to SA Health’s guidelines, vaccinated close contacts on quarantine still require a negative PCR test on day six to leave quarantine, although national cabinet on Thursday agreed that vaccinated close contacts would only require a negative rapid antigen test to leave quarantine.

Meanwhile, almost all major testing sites across South Australia have been closed today due to hot weather and are not due to open again until 5:30pm.

SA Health said a new walk-in testing centre in Hindmarsh has been opened in the meantime.

Temperatures are forecast to hit 39 in Adelaide and up to 41 in other regions today, with total fire bans in place across much of the state. 

Omicron cases continue to surge across South Australia with another 1374 new cases were recorded on Thursday on top of 1472 on Wednesday and 995 on Tuesday.

There are 7561 active cases in the state, according to SA Health.

Restrictions to remain through ‘tough’ January period

It comes as Spurrier said SA Health is expecting case numbers to get “quite large” next month, with density cap restrictions on hospitality venues and gyms to remain in place through January.

InDaily reported on Thursday that epidemiologist Adrian Esterman and data scientist Chris Billington are projecting South Australian cases to peak in mid-January at more than 6000 a day, based on the trajectory of the state’s current Omicron outbreak.

Spurrier said the numbers were in line with SA Health’s forecasts, although the state’s peak caseload is “complicated” to model due to factors such as the new public health restrictions and the impact of booster shots.

“Adrian Esterman has suggested we’ll have some very high numbers in South Australia and indeed when we’re looking at that we have that expectation as well,” she said.

“What we do need to do is try and reduce the numbers so we don’t overwhelm our health system.

“Being a smaller state, we just don’t have as many hospital beds, we don’t have as many hospitals and indeed we don’t have as many staff – it’s easier to become overwhelmed when you’re in a smaller state.

“So we are expecting [case] numbers to get quite large, but of course everything we do from a day to day basis as individuals will help reduce that number.”

The number of people hospitalised with the virus in South Australia remained at 37 on Thursday, up from 23 at the start of the week.

There are four people in intensive care, including one person in their 30s on a ventilator.

Of those in hospital, SA Health says 17 are fully vaccinated, 19 are unvaccinated while one person’s vaccination status is unknown.

Spurrier flagged that the one-person per four square metre density limit on hospitality venues and one-person per seven square metre limit on gyms would likely remain in place through January as authorities try to “suppress the curve” of Omicron infections.

“It’s difficult to predict but certainly January is going to be pretty tough,” she said.

“So along with those public health and social measures with restrictions on hospitality – we are looking at least for that month, but I know it makes it very difficult for people.”

Spurrier also said the indefinite postponement on non-urgent elective surgery would likely run through January, and SA Health would be “working towards” opening schools for on-site learning in term one.

The South Australian Education Department says it is working through “a range of scenarios” for how schools will operate when students return on January 31.

SA prepares for COVID-safe New Year’s Eve

The chief public health officer says she’s “pretty comfortable” with the New Year’s Eve celebrations planned across the CBD tonight, with the traditional Adelaide Strikers BBL clash to go ahead with a maximum of 25,000 spectators along with COVID-safe street parties throughout the city.

Spurrier came under fire earlier in the week after saying she wanted this year to be the “absolute quietest New Year’s Eve anybody has ever had”.

“We really do not want to have lots of people getting together during that New Year’s Eve period,” she told FiveAA on Wednesday.

However, Spurrier later walked back her comments, saying: “We’ve worked very closely with the Adelaide City Council, they have excellent COVID safe plans, and again, the activities in Rymill Park are outside.”

“The organisers have taken their responsibility very seriously, and from an individual person’s point of view, if you’ve got any of those symptoms of COVID please don’t go,” she said.

A maximum of 25,000 spectators are set to attend Adelaide Oval for the traditional New Year’s Eve Big Bash clash between the Adelaide Strikers and Sydney Thunder.

Premier Marshall has defended the SA Health approved crowd for the BBL game, after announcing on Boxing Day that hospitality venues and gyms would have their capacity immediately cut as a measure to stem the rise in cases.

“Those decisions are made by Health, they’ve been made by Health since day one, we don’t make political decision or political overlays,” Marshall told ABC Radio Adelaide yesterday.

“But a seated, ticketed, outdoor event where people are sitting in rows with masks on are just not comparable to big house parties where people are drinking and dancing and losing inhibition and spreading the virus.

“The epidemiologists look at all of the activities, I know that sometimes this doesn’t make sense to individuals, but they’re the ones that make the calls and I think it’s better that we leave it up to the experts.”

The Stadium Management Authority said in a November 18 update that under its SA Health-approved COVID Management Plan for the upcoming Second Test and Big Bash matches: “Patrons will still be required to wear a mask at all times other than when eating or drinking – this includes when entering, exiting and moving around the stadium and whilst seated watching the event.”

Adelaide Oval spectators on December 17 during day two of the Second Test. Photo: Michael Errey/InDaily

Elsewhere in the CBD, Adelaide City Council says there are a range of New Year’s Eve activities complying with COVID-19 restrictions and asks people to pre-book tickets and avoid gathering in large groups.

“Light Up” at Rymill Park/Murlawirripurka is sold out. It will feature live music, roving performers and interactive displays as well as two lighting and pyrotechnic shows at 9:30pm and midnight.

The council says the 5000 ticket-holders aren’t required to be vaccinated but all staff and patrons over the age of 12 will be required to wear masks when standing or moving around.

There are also four new “Midnight Moments”: East End Street Party, Jerningham Street Party, Eleven off Waymouth Street and Sparkke at the Whitmore.

Adelaide Lord Mayor Sandy Verschoor said it was important for people to celebrate, but safely.

“Given the last couple of years, I think it’s important people can celebrate so we are asking everyone to be prepared, plan your night, book your tickets and be mindful of social distancing,” she said.

“This is a different way of celebrating the new year but we believe the variety on offer will allow for more people to pick their own adventure in the city.”

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