May 23rd, 2022Pandemic far from over, according to Nancy
PROFESSOR Nancy Baxter is The University of Melbourne’s Head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health. A clinical epidemiologist, general surgeon and health services researcher, she has been in the forefront of the fight against Covid. She chatted with Donna Kelly about the pandemic.
Donna: The government and some people are talking “post pandemic” and yet it seems we are still in the grip of pandemic. Are we? What’s next?
“If we all work masks, particularly high-quality well fitted masks, we could drive down transmission. This would also help with flu transmission. I am really concerned about the healthcare system right now so I am wearing mine as much as possible.“
Nancy: We are very much still in the midst of the pandemic. Fortunately most of us have been vaccinated before encountering Covid so we are not seeing the same degree of illness as other countries did in 2020 and 2021 when they had to face the disease with no immunity.
But we now have almost 6000 people in Australia already dying of Covid in 2022 and thousands of people contracting the disease daily. Our health care system is strained and we are going into winter with what is shaping up to be (in addition to the Covid outbreak) a bad year for the flu.
I think many people had hoped that if they got COVID it would be “one and done” – we now know that having had an infection doesn’t protect you from getting Covid again for long, so if we try to live like the pandemic is over we will be getting Covid multiple times per year.
And on top of that there are likely to be new variants that have an impact. We are much better off because of vaccines, but realistically the pandemic is not over.
Donna: How can we best help ourselves when we are already triple vaxxed?
Nancy: For some people at higher risk (over age 65, immunocompromised) getting the winter dose (4th dose) is important and for anyone yet to get their booster doing so ASAP is important – having everyone boosted will save lives.
Getting your flu vaccine is important too – our health care system is going to be in big trouble if we have two major outbreaks happening at once. We all have different levels of risk tolerance, and some of us have higher risk of severe disease from COVID, so there is not one size fits all.
But at this point if everyone considered making small changes to reduce transmission it would help. Wearing masks, socialising outdoors when possible, socialising with smaller groups, ensuring your indoor air is well ventilated, and staying at home when sick – these are things we can all do.
For those people who get Covid (and many of us will – it is very contagious!) talking to your doctor about whether you are eligible for anti-viral medications that can reduce the risk of severe disease is important – the medication needs to be started within five days of symptoms so it’s important to act quickly.
Donna: Should masks still be mandated?
Nancy: If we all wore masks, particularly high-quality well fitted masks, we could drive down transmission. This would also help with flu transmission. I am really concerned about the healthcare system right now so I am wearing mine as much as possible.
Donna: If people like myself, in their 50s, with asthma, and carrying a couple of extra kilos of Covid coating, want another booster, should that be available?
Nancy: I think the best thing to do would be to speak with your GP who knows your history and can assess how high your risk is of severe outcomes from Covid. As we get further from our boosters, I would anticipate the age cutoff will come down so you will probably be eligible in the not too distant future.
Donna: Do Australian people take this seriously enough or have we become slack?
Nancy: People are really tired – I get that, but almost 6000 people have died already this year. Covid is on track to be one of the major killers of Australians this year with no end really in sight.
So I do think we have allowed our fatigue to cloud our judgement a bit. But I believe that after it becomes clear to Australians that this is not going away that people will start to change their behaviours. We are not going to live well with Covid unless we adapt to Covid.
Donna: How do you feel about being a celebrity? Was that ever on the books?
Nancy: I tell friends from Toronto that I am occasionally recognised on the street and none of us can believe it. No, this was very much not on my bingo card. I have felt very honoured to have the privilege of helping communicate what is happening to Australians. I feel that deeply.
Donna: Do you wish you were still in Canada – and how are they going there? I lived in Japan and had a best friend who was Canadian who often wore a maple leaf on her outfit to stand out from Americans. Do you ever do this? Joking, maybe.
Nancy: I lived in the US for five years and some of my best friends are American. I sometimes think Canadians are like Kiwis in terms of us always being mistaken for our bigger neighbours. However, I don’t generally need a maple leaf – the first “about” out of my mouth and the Australians are on to me. Not being able to travel home has been hard, however I am very grateful to have been in Australia during the pandemic. We have been remarkably safe throughout mainly because we were all in this together.