COVID-19 is one of the leading causes of death in Australia. What now?

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Speaking at the National Press Club last week, Anthony Albanese pledged that a Labor government would “bolster” Australia’s national COVID-19 strategy. Now in office as Australia’s 31st prime minister, medical experts are pressuring him to persevere.

Australia has so far recorded more than 7,900 coronavirus deaths since the pandemic began, with more than 70 per cent occurring in the first five months of this year. The virus is now one of the leading causes of death nationwide.

By the end of last month, COVID-19 was the “underlying” cause of 89 per cent of all deaths in Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. And these are virus deaths, not just those that occurred while someone was infected.

And the daily COVID-19 death rate across the country is also steadily increasing.

Across all states and territories, Australia is seeing more than 50 deaths a day on average, and experts believe the nation is on track to reach as many as 18,000 COVID-19 deaths by the end of the year. That’s more than 16 times the annual road toll, which was 1,127 last year.

The Albanese Labor government has been vocal in supporting making Australia’s response to COVID-19 a priority. On Tuesday, it was reported that he ordered the Department of Health to prepare a new briefing on the current status of the pandemic across Australia and suggested that he would make the issue one of his first agenda items when he returns from meetings with world leaders in Japan.

For experts, however, there is a long list of suggestions – and of course some demands. Chief among them is an almost unanimous push for the Labor government to push for better uptake of the third and fourth boosters while making them more widely available.

Professor Greg Dore, of the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute, said the Prime Minister should open eligibility for fourth doses immediately. On Wednesday afternoon, Acting Secretary of Health Katy Gallagher announced that people with disabilities, cancer and other complex health conditions would be eligible for a fourth vaccination, along with people over 60 and First Nations people over 50.

Just last week, OzSAGE’s multidisciplinary expert group released its own list of recommendations. Like Dore, they encouraged the government to open up eligibility for fourth booster shots more than before, along with a long list of other measures to prevent community transmission.

Professor Raina MacIntyre, professor of global biosecurity at the Kirby Institute, said it is time Australian policymakers look for new, rapid treatments to help GPs manage COVID-19 complications at the community level. She said, “It’s disappointing” that it took so long.

“Simple, proven and available measures such as the asthma prevention inhaler, budesonide, can prevent serious complications, but there are no guidelines for community treatment. There are two effective antivirals that can reduce hospital admissions, and one is widely prescribed in other countries, but access is severely limited here,” MacIntyre said.

“Living with COVID also comes with the responsibility of providing access to effective treatments. We will regret not having done so as a massive burden of chronic disease will follow, many of which, along with fatalities, could be averted with early use of antivirals and other treatments.”

Beyond treatment, OzSAGE experts said the federal government needs to start thinking more critically about what “living with COVID” actually means in Australia, as it has “failed” at this pace. An early strategy that state and federal governments could adopt is to retrofit public spaces and schools with better ventilation and filtration.

That could mean offering grants to improve ventilation infrastructure – in the same way the Victoria state government has done with theirs Ventilation program for small businesses– and even just legal standards for safe indoor air quality through filtration. Associate Professor Robyn Schofield, Associate Dean of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Melbourne, said it would provide immediate relief for any problems that might arise.

“Improving and paying attention to indoor air quality has so many additional benefits, including increases in productivity and cognitive function and decision-making, and a reduction in absenteeism,” Schofield said.

“Before the pandemic, the cost of poor indoor air quality to Australia was estimated at $12 billion a year – I think we’re only now realizing that when a pandemic hits our indoor spaces, that’s a significant underestimate,” she said.

However, what has been left out of Australia’s policy discussion of COVID-19 so far is how the nation plans to address the rising number of people likely to suffer from the debilitating, long-term effects of “Long COVID”.

According to the World Health Organization, COVID is long defined as a post-COVID-19 condition suffered by someone who has been infected with coronavirus in the past before experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog and a number of other symptoms for at least two months after the first infection.

At this stage there is no explanation for this. In Australia, too, there is not much discussion about it.

Ahead of Election Day, Australian Medical Association President Dr. Omar Khorshid said it might only be a matter of time before hospital clinics and GPs would be inundated with patients with the disease and now is the time to educate them.

“We need the system to deliver services and the next government will not be able to ignore COVID for long,” said Dr. Khorshid.

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