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COVID cases jump as new mask mandate 'up for consideration'

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Reintroducing mask mandates across South Australia is “certainly up for consideration” says Police Commissioner Grant Stevens, as COVID case numbers and hospitalisations jumped today.

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Daily infections rose by nearly a thousand today, to 4072, up from 3141 yesterday.

But it’s the hospitalisation rate that authorities are more concerned about – with 267 people with COVID now in hospital, up from 234 yesterday.

The Australian Medical Association is strongly urging authorities to consider re-introducing a mask mandate to reduce hospitalisations, as SA braces for a new peak, saying masks offer “the highest bang for buck with the lowest inconvenience”.

“South Australia should be considering it as a lever because currently at the moment without that we are dealing with a public health emergency purely by relying on vaccinations and antivirals and the goodwill of the public,” AMA vice president Dr Chris Moy told InDaily.

“It has to be on the table.

“If our hospitals are overrun and people start dying because they can’t get care, well that’s what we were trying to stop all along.”

Moy’s warning comes as SA braces for a new wave of COVID and a further spike in hospitalisations spurred by the highly transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 variants of Omicron.

Stevens told ABC Radio Adelaide this morning that returning to a mask mandate is “certainly something that’s up for consideration”.

“There’s no decision about that at the moment, but I’m hopeful that people’s understanding of what COVID-19 is all about and the potential consequences and the regular reporting on just how much impact COVID and other illnesses have on the health system that people will recognise there’s a common sense approach here and masks will go on when it’s appropriate,” he said.

Currently, authorities are strongly urging people to wear masks but there is no broad mandate apart from in certain settings such as on public transport and in healthcare, disability and aged care sites.

“I think the first step for us as a community is to see whether we respond that way before we talk about requiring people to do something because when you require people to do something you know it’s … making it harder for people to feel like they’re a part of the solution, you know they’re being dictated to as to what they should do, and that should be the last resort,” Stevens said.

Authorities yesterday released new modelling showing SA could expect up to 6000 daily cases by the end of the month.

But it’s the predicted hospitalisations that has officials and clinicians on edge.

The modelling suggests the number of people admitted to hospital because of COVID will rise from an estimated 75 patients currently, to about 150 patients by the end of July.

Today’s reported 267 people in hospital includes patients hospitalised for other medical conditions but who also have the virus.

Authorities today reported five more deaths of people with COVID – three women in their 90s and two men in their 80s.

SA Health says the sharp rise in daily infections coincides with a 55.3 per cent increase in people taking PCR tests, compared to the previous 24 hours.

Health Minister Chris Picton yesterday warned: “Clearly, we are facing a really dangerous situation in terms of our hospital situation and our health services because we clearly don’t have the capacity in our system.”

“We are absolutely trying to open any additional capacity we can.”

Every Adelaide hospital emergency department was operating above capacity at the highest level “code white” on Monday night, with the college for emergency medicine declaring “it isn’t safe” and the nurses’ union describing the health system as “on the brink of collapse”.

Authorities can no longer simply reintroduce restrictions now that the state emergency declaration has been scrapped.

It would require a new emergency to be declared under the Public Health Act or a return to a full Emergency Management Act declaration, handing decision-making powers back to Stevens.

“If you took a mask mandate as an example the current legislative framework wouldn’t permit that to occur so what would be required would be for the Chief Executive of SA Health to declare a public health emergency which then gives them powers to require people to do certain things to slow down the spread of the virus,” Stevens said.

He said a new mask mandate would likely be made under the Public Health Act but if further restrictions such as density caps were required that would likely be done under an Emergency Management Act declaration.

Stevens said “if we saw a significant rise in the number of people needing hospital treatment for COVID-19, that would certainly be an alarm for us”.

“I think historically over the last you know 12 months or so the hospital capacity that I was advised about was… in the order of about 300 people being hospitalised for COVID.”

Chief public health officer Professor Nicola Spurrier said she hoped to be a “role model for wearing masks”.

“I don’t wear them outside when it’s well-ventilated, I don’t wear them in my home with my family but I do wear them in the office at work when I’m around other people and I wear them when I’m going into a supermarket or I’ve gone to a concert or a movie or something like that because I just think it’s a simple thing to do that I can do to protect other people,” she told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“Particularly in winter when we have got the flu and of course we are facing this BA.4/BA.5 wave, I just really want to strongly encourage people to wear their masks,” she said.

Picton held crisis talks with Royal Adelaide Hospital ED doctors and their union yesterday.

“I had a very productive meeting with SASMOA and a number of senior emergency doctors to hear their concerns and discuss any additional short-term measures our new Government can implement,” he told InDaily this morning.

“We agreed the challenges that clinicians face including access block have been getting progressively worse over many years and must be addressed.

“I outlined the actions the new Government has already taken and our willingness to implement any other measures that will help.”

Picton said he would meet with doctors again next week “to discuss the next steps to help resolve these long-running issues”.

“I will continue to work with doctors to fix the problems that we have inherited as soon as possible,” he said.

“Importantly I am well aware it is not just the Royal Adelaide Hospital that is experiencing similar issues and we are considering every possible measure that can be implemented to ease pressure on the system overall.”

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