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SA close contact quarantine set to be ditched after COVID wave

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Chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier has indicated South Australia will move to end mandatory quarantine for close contacts after a predicted April COVID-19 wave peaks.

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It comes as South Australia recorded 5134 new COVID-19 cases today and two deaths – a women in her 80s and a child under the age of five, who Spurrier said had “severe health problems” and had been on a “palliative care pathway”.

“Because they did test positive for COVID it will be counted towards our COVID deaths,” Spurrier told reporters this afternoon, noting the child was not old enough to be vaccinated.

“When you have a significant underlying health problem, it could indeed be any other infection to just tip over that balance.

“People are very susceptible, and … it doesn’t necessarily need to be COVID but there are other respiratory infections that just may make it more difficult for people with that level of susceptibility.”

Close contacts in South Australia – defined as someone who spends four hours face to face with a positive COVID-19 case or a household relative – are currently required to spend seven days in home quarantine.

But the federal government’s peak decision-making body for disease control, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), yesterday published a statement indicating it “supports changes to implement more targeted testing and removal of routine quarantine requirements for all close contacts”.

“AHPPC recommends a nationally consistent, risk-based transition to the removal of the requirement for close contacts of COVID-19 cases to quarantine,” the committee states.

“Following the peak impact of the (Omicron subvariant) BA.2 wave, quarantine will be replaced by other measures.”

The AHPPC said close contacts may face new requirements for “frequent” rapid antigen testing, wearing of masks when outside the house and working from home when feasible.

They may also be barred from attending high-risk settings and asked to isolate if symptomatic.

Spurrier flagged this morning that South Australia would look to be a part of any national change to close contact rules, and later indicated that regular rapid testing and mask-wearing would be effective risk mitigation strategies for close contacts in future.

“At some point nationwide we’d like to move to a place of not requiring quarantine for close contacts but putting some sort of other risk mitigation in place,” she told ABC Radio this morning.

“We’re just monitoring when we can get to that situation, it’s just not the time at the moment.”

Spurrier said the timeline for removing the rules “really depends on how we’re going with our current wave”.

“When you’re going into a peak, if you make significant changes like that you amplify the number of cases,” she said.

“When you’re down the other side of a peak, it’s much safer to make those sorts of quite significant changes.”

South Australia’s COVID-19 cases are forecast to peak next week and reach up to 8000 infections a day, with the Malinauskas Government looking to stand up 200 hospital beds to prepare for the surge.

The AHPPC statement released last night emphasised that the “appropriate time for any changes will be in the weeks following the anticipated peak of the current BA.2 variant of concern surge”.

“Making changes, including changes to quarantine settings, that will result in increased transmission in the community at a time when cases are already increasing or are at their peak, may result in further disruption to the health system,” the committee states.

Australian Hotels Association CEO Ian Horne has been pushing for SA Health to allow hospitality workers that are deemed close contacts back to work if they are asymptomatic and have a negative RAT test.

“Now that pretty much all the restrictions on hospitality have been lifted … a number of operators both in accommodation and food and beverage are struggling because we’ve got example of where 20 per cent of their workforce are in isolation for close contact rules,” Horne said.

“We’ve raised the issue to say that if we’re not ready to remove all of the close contact requirements then perhaps look at hospitality in the same way we look at logistics, truckies and health workers.”

But Spurrier rejected the hospitality push this morning, saying that when authorities assess industry exemptions, “we really need to have a look at the criticality of that in terms of our whole society’s functioning”.

“I am reviewing at the moment as case numbers go up, but really with a particular focus on essential industries that keep things ticking over,” she said.

“So I do certainly have sympathy for hospitality, but I do think we have that as a whole society.”

Business SA director of policy and advocacy Kendall Crowe welcomed the potential shift in close contact rules, saying “it is great that SA Health is listening to what the business community needs”.

“The current seven days of quarantine for close contacts means people who can’t work from home can’t work at all,” she said in a statement.

“This puts pressure on business owners and employers, with increased overtime to cover the staff shortages.

“The removal of all close contact rules will ease the burden for business owners and employers however COVID-19 isn’t gone yet so we all need to rethink how we protect ourselves in the workplace.”

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