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SA's COVID surge as Marshall says Omicron peak approaching

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South Australia has recorded a COVID surge of 5679 new cases and six deaths linked to the virus, with the Marshall Government releasing modelling showing a peak of between 6000 and 10,000 daily cases could happen within days.

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It comes as chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier revealed teachers would be mandated to wear masks in both primary and high schools when classroom learning resumes, with students from year 3 upwards “encouraged” to do the same.

Premier Steven Marshall, in his first day out of isolation as a close contact of his COVID-positive daughter, told reporters the record case surge contained a collation of recent rapid antigen tests dating back days, while tests that became available free to close contacts yesterday also bumped up the total.

However, hospitalisations also jumped to 246 cases, with 20 people in intensive care – down from 27 two days ago – and eight now requiring a ventilator.

SA Health later clarified that the six deaths of people with COVID-19 included two women in their 90s, one man in his 60s, one man in his 70s and two men in their 80s.

The 5679 new cases also came from 24,796 PCR tests, which Marshall said was a “huge number, up about 20 per cent on the previous two hot days, which puts us right at the top of the tree in terms of per capita testing”. The new case figure is up from 3669 yesterday.

“We do need to have some caution when interpreting this data,” he said, noting SA Pathology had advised that “many of the [RAT] samples reported today are samples from two days ago”.

The new RAT distribution site in the southern park lands saw 4310 vehicles pass through yesterday, administering 20,266 two-test kits – 10,133 of which will be used in the next six days.

“[The figures are] likely to be lumpy for the next day or so and then smooth out [but] this result is well within the model,” Marshall said.

That model was today released in more detail and show the state could hit its peak daily caseload as early as tomorrow.

Marshall said the model showed SA will hit the peak of the Omicron wave between tomorrow and January 25.

“During that period, peak cases are expected to be between 6000 and 10,000 per day,” he said.

“However the model does suggest the state may never see cases that high and we could be in the peak period right now.

“The modelling provides that the peak could be reached as early as tomorrow… so we’re right on the cusp of that at the moment.”

The modelling, by the University of Adelaide, shows the state was heading for a peak of around 30,000 to 40,000 new cases a day by the third week of January “if it wasn’t for the quick implementation of restrictions on Boxing Day”.

Joshua Ross, a Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Adelaide, said in his modelling notes that “one thing that is clear is that the activity restrictions have made our situation much better than it would have otherwise been”.

However, chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier, in her first public appearance since last week, said the approaching Omicron peak would not herald a swift removal of the restrictions Marshall credits for averting a disaster.

“Those models have been put together with the assumption that those restrictions are in place,” she said.

The Premier said the modelling suggested the peak of the outbreak would require about 370 hospital beds and around 50 ICU beds.

“We have already provided for significantly more than what the model is telling us we’re going to need at that peak,” he said.

“I can’t promise there isn’t going to be a further wave but what I can promise is that SA is one of the safest places in the world to be.”

However, projected modelling “remains slightly uncertain” and depends “heavily” on the behaviour of South Australians in the coming weeks, Marshall said, arguing the decision to limit face-to-face learning in schools until February 14 would dramatically reduce the number of COVID cases in the next month.

“What he told us is there would have been another 20,000 to 30,000 new cases through the month of February if we didn’t stagger that start,” he said.

“I don’t like doing this – I’d much prefer to have every student back on the 14th of February [but] we can reduce the number of cases by tens of thousands.”

The government yesterday announced it would adopt a hybrid school model for the first two weeks of Term 1 amid concerns about COVID-19 cases surging once classrooms reopen.

Under the plan, children of essential workers and those deemed vulnerable will go back to school on January 31.

From February 2, children in preschool, kindergarten, Reception and Years 1, 7, 8 and 12 will return to school for face-to-face learning, while students in all other grades will start school online.

All students will return to face-to-face learning on February 14.

Spurrier today revealed that when in-person schooling resumes “masks will be mandatory for teachers in both primary and secondary schools”.

They will again be “strongly encouraged” for high school students and Spurrier said she was also encouraging “little ones from year three to be wearing masks”.

If a positive case is detected in a class setting, “kids will be strongly encouraged” to continue attending, she said, while conceding not all families would be comfortable with this.

She said teachers in such a situation would be “considered very similar to a close contact critical worker”, and would be allowed to continue working instead of isolating.

However, if a teacher tests positive “that teacher will have their ten days of isolation”, although “children still be able to come back into the class [as] we need to make sure there’s not that interruption to their schooling”.

Earlier this morning, SA Secondary Principals’ Association CEO Peter Mader told ABC Radio Adelaide he welcomed the government’s hybrid schooling model, describing it as a “balanced response”.

“What the government is trying to do at the moment is balance the health interests of the community, the education interests of our young people and keep the economy going and that’s a really difficult balancing act to undertake,” he said.

“From a secondary perspective, it’s a pretty good fit understanding, of course, that parents at the micro level may have students spread across different levels and it will impact very differently from household to household.”

Marshall told ABC Radio this morning that the hybrid model would advantage students who were “most critical”.

He said there was “compelling evidence” that introducing a staggered approach to returning students to classrooms would prevent “thousands and thousands” of COVID-19 cases.

“I do apologise for the inconvenience – I’ve been saying for some time now there will be a disrupted start to Term 1 in South Australia,” he said.

“But, I think we’ve got the balance right.”

It comes as the Education Department this morning confirmed that it would not deploy air purifiers to every classroom across the state, following calls from the teachers’ union and state opposition.

In a statement, the department said it commissioned an independent trial which found air purifiers “do not reduce the amount of CO2 within education spaces in any meaningful way and provide minimal improvement to the quality of air”.

The department said SA Health supported its decision and confirmed that natural ventilation was “most effective”.

“Our approach is in line with other states and territories,” it said.

“The advice is clear that ventilation is only one of a number of risk mitigation measures to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

“It works best with other controls including good hygiene practices, cleaning, vaccination and the use of outdoor learning environments where appropriate.”

The Department conducted an audit of ventilation in classrooms, but it is yet to publicly release its findings.

It said this morning that it was “working closely” with preschools and schools to identify where natural ventilation could be improved.

“We have also been assessing air-conditioning systems and we are making adjustments to maximise the flow of fresh air,” it said.

Meanwhile, the State Government announced it would set up rapid antigen test distribution sites across seven metropolitan and regional council areas, including Port Adelaide Enfield, Charles Sturt, Onkaparinga, Mount Gambier, Berri/Barmerra, Murray Bridge and Port Augusta.

Marshall said the Berri/Barmera site would open tomorrow.

The exact locations and opening date for each area is yet to be announced, but it is expected they will open in the next 10 days.

Negotiations are also underway for more LGAs to become part of the RAT distribution program.

Only asymptomatic close contacts are eligible to receive the free testing kits from the sites, with those who are symptomatic encouraged to seek PCR testing.

New South Wales today reported 29 COVID-related deaths and another 63,018 cases, with Premier Dominic Perrottet saying the state was tracking better than the best case scenario predicted by health authorities.

Victoria meanwhile recorded 34,836 new COVID-19 cases and 18 deaths, while Queensland reported three deaths and 23,630 new virus cases.

Queensland recorded three COVID-19 deaths and 23,630 new virus cases.

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